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Homebrew meat club: Japanese sci-fi inspires open source cell agriculture

Image credit: Dreamstime

‘Clean meat’ start-ups are mushrooming, but Japanese citizen-science community Shojinmeat is using an alternative home-based DIY approach to accelerate innovation.

“I started this whole thing because of science fiction,” says Dr Yuki Hanyu, co-founder of non-profit cultured-meat collective Shojinmeat. “Cell-based meat happens everywhere in manga and anime sci-fi.”

Many scientists, engineers and tech CEOs speak of science fiction as inspiring them to follow the path of innovation, as well as seeding ideas that they go on to deliver in the real world. The same is true of Dr Hanyu.

The popular manga and anime comics and cartoons, hailing from the land of the rising sun, depict a universe full of cultured meat – grown outside an animal’s body by extracting live cells and placing them in a culture.

The idea for cultured meat originated as a way of supplying meat to humans colonising space, without the need to convey cumbersome animals from Earth. Indeed, Nasa was among the first to produce cultured meat in the 2000s.

Yet its potential benefits are landing closer to home. Reducing meat consumption is promoted as a way of addressing climate change, biodiversity and animal welfare. Cultured meat is predicted to use much less energy, water and land than conventional meat – and hopefully taste as good.

Shojinmeat’s approach to achieving this vision is unique: “We are developing open-​source DIY cell-cultured meat so that everyone can grow meat at home.”

Bringing transparency, knowledge sharing and ‘many brains’ to democratise cell-cultured meat differs from most commercial start-ups, which guard their intellectual property.

The diverse bunch of engineers and scientists at Shojinmeat have developed cheap methods for extracting live cells, creating cell-culture medium, and making lab equipment.

Although members have grown fish, oyster and mouse meat, chicken remains the focus right now, and getting hold of live cells is vital. “One person incubates fertilised chicken eggs for about 8-12 days, then extracts the cells and freezes them, and either mails them to members or hands them out at a meeting,” he says.

The live cells are then placed in a culture medium, which provides the cells with nutrients while growing in a petri dish or bioreactor. It mimics the support systems inside animals. Shojinmeat’s medium is made from ingredients that are widely available and a fraction of the cost of laboratory-grade medium.

Recipes thus far have included isotonic sports drink, egg yolk, vitamin tablets and bodybuilding powder (amino acids). Home-made equipment includes microscopes, centrifuges built from fans and towel warmers for incubators.

Lowering the cost of the process and making it easy enough for most people to carry out is fundamental to the community’s aims. So all of the learnings are published in online ‘how-to’ guides, free for anyone to edit.

“We are simplifying all of the methods, and the youngest person who cultured cells was actually 10 years old,” Hanyu adds.

Critically, cultured meat will need to taste as good as traditional meat to take off. According to Hanyu, the taste “depends on how you cook it”, and one method yielded results: “It tasted similar to a piece of KFC chicken.”

The pieces produced so far have been around the size of a pea, taking 14-20 days to grow and containing around 100,000 cells. The team are now working on scaling up, with the help of crowd-funding and revenues from manga guides on cultured meat.

‘Biohacking’ initiatives such as Shojinmeat are not without criticism though, particularly regarding safety: who ensures that no one is harmed in the process?

While anyone can take part, reassuringly they are almost always started and run by experts who can ensure a certain level of safety through educating others.

For example, Hanyu has a PhD in organic and biological chemistry from the University of Oxford, and previously worked on battery technology at Toshiba. In addition, Beyond Biolab Tokyo, the shared laboratory where Shojinmeat members gather and teach, has Biosafety 1 accreditation – rare for this type of lab.

However, the method for ensuring homebrew cultured meat is safe to eat, Hanyu explains, is more pragmatic than technical: “If it smells bad or looks mouldy, don’t eat it.”

He also goes on to explain that all of the substances used are commonly available and edible, which in his opinion also decreases the risk to health.

‘Citizen science brings a very different philosophy to technological innovation.’

Dr Alexandra Sexton, University of Oxford

More controversially, Kankaro Osada, an anthropology PhD student and member of Shojimeat, is planning to grow meat from her own muscle cells. The experiment will form part of her thesis and a thought-provoking bio-art project – is cannibalism OK if no humans were harmed in the process? Most of society will baulk at this: but that’s the whole point.

Bringing creativity to the tech party is important for Shojinmeat. For example, members create artwork and 3D virtual worlds featuring their own manga characters, called Miyo-san and Aco-chan, that live on future planets.

This fusion of technology, art and community is customary in biohacking and other open-source initiatives across the world. These movements represent a counter-culture that rejects hierarchy and celebrates agility and decentralisation. Increasingly, this is permeating the mainstream.

Beyond BioLab, Tokyo is also home to another DIY biology club where members experiment with green bacteria and modify DNA. They build their own lab equipment too.

“There is a whole cottage industry of people making PCR [polymerase chain reaction] machines,” says Georg Tremmel, co-founder of BioClub Tokyo, DNA researcher and professional artist. “It’s actually a very nice project because you need to do laser cutting and electronics... it’s the workhorse of any biological lab. It allows you to multiply DNA.”

DIY biology emerged in the mid-2000s; however, the open-source and collaborative ethos goes back further. Its impact on digital technology is probably most well-known: open-source Linux and Apache software is at the vanguard of professional ICT.

Dr Alexandra Sexton, alternative protein researcher at the University of Oxford, expands on the Shojinmeat approach: “Citizen science brings a very different philosophy to technological innovation. The potential benefits of a citizen-science approach for cellular agriculture include greater transparency and accountability within the research and development process, and a more diverse collective of knowledge coming together to problem-solve and drive innovation forward.”

An example of ‘knowledge mingling’ here is between regenerative medicine and cultured meat. The same tissue-engineering techniques are common to both, so there is potential for cross-pollination benefits.

Still, there are hurdles to overcome. Sexton explains: “There are practical challenges to citizen-science initiatives, from ensuring standardised and controlled environments during experiments to relying on different levels of training and availability of volunteers. Many in the scientific community and wider public also remain sceptical about citizen-science approaches generating reliable, safe and trustworthy data.”

While the open-source approach can be messy at times, there is no doubting its potential. It was even instrumental in the development of the personal computer – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were regular attenders of the Homebrew Computer Club in California, unveiling their first Apple computer to the enthusiasts assembled.

Could Shojinmeat do for cell agriculture what the hobbyist clubs of Silicon Valley did for the PC? If trust builds, and broadens, it’s certainly possible.

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