From Lab to Table

(November 1st, 2016) Looking for new ways to eat fresh ingredients? Researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have developed a prototype for a device that would enable consumers to grow edible plant cells directly in their kitchen.

After five years of working with plant cell cultures, Lauri Reuter was hungry for more. “I got a bit frustrated because the cells look really yummy but obviously you’re not allowed to eat anything in the lab,” Reuter says. He spoke with a colleague about growing the cultures at home so he could taste them. They came up with the idea of making a bioreactor that would be cheap, sterile, and easy to use, which people could use to grow cells for food. Reuter and his fellow research scientists at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have developed a prototype for their home appliance, known as CellPod. Rather than growing an entire plant, CellPod grows only edible plant cells.

So far, the researchers have been experimenting with Finnish berry cultures. Reuter describes the texture as a slurry or smoothie-like consistency. The mouthfeel is rather grainy, he says; you can feel the cellulose wall. The flavour, however, needs some work.  “We have been working a long time with these cell cultures but we haven’t tasted them. We grow them in the lab for completely different purposes. No one ever tried to develop them in the direction of having flavour.”

With some tweaking, he believes both the taste and the nutrition of the cells can be improved. The cells are undifferentiated, thus they have the genetic potential to produce all of the plant’s compounds, such as vitamins and antioxidants. But some compounds are only produced in certain organs of the plant. At present, the researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes the undifferentiated cells to produce more of one compound and less of another.

In addition to culturing berries, Reuter’s group is also trying their hand at developing edible cultures from non-food crops. Their birch tree cultures are bright red and fruity-smelling with a mild taste. Reuter says they don’t know what the nutritional values of these cells will be, but that they could potentially introduce new biomolecules into a person’s diet that aren’t available when the plants grow in nature.

In the future, Reuter would like to explore tailoring designer cells that are full of the biomolecules a person might want in their diet. “If we think two steps further in the future, synthetic biology gives quite a lot of tools to engineer cells,” he says.

For Reuter, independence is the primary benefit of instruments such as CellPod. People who live in urban environments could have bioreactors in their own kitchen to produce a fresh portion of their diet themselves. A scaled-up version could also have commercial applications. Plant cell cultures are already widely used in cosmetics because of their active biomolecules. As the cultures become less expensive to produce, they might become more common as ingredients in processed foods.

The current prototype has two compartments that each yield 200-400 grams of fresh cells per week. Reuter says he would like to develop a method of continuous culture so that some cells could be harvested every day. The seed culture is packaged in a capsule with concentrated nutrients that is clipped into the device, much like a Nescafé pod. A bag lines the cell culture vessel, to which the user adds water through a filter. The device provides light and bubbles air into the culture vessel. The bioreactor resembles a lamp and is small enough to keep on the kitchen table. It uses about the same amount of energy as a small fish tank. Reuter would to see the device retail for the same price as a fancy espresso machine.

While the bioreactor itself is fairly low-tech, creating the cell cultures themselves is an advanced process that would probably have to remain in the lab. The capsules would also need to be affordable: “If you buy half a kilo of berries, it shouldn’t be much more expensive to produce them fresh at home than it would be to buy them from the supermarket,” Reuter says.

The researchers are still looking for ways to serve the cell cultures. So far they have only tasted them. “I’m a scientist; what do I know about cooking?” Reuter says. “What we want to do is bag these cells and go to someone who really knows how to cook and then see what they can do with it.”

The system is still in the early stages of development but it does highlight some interesting possibilities for the future of eating. In addition to enabling people to produce plant material that might be otherwise unavailable, Reuter says that in some cases the cell cultures have a higher protein content than the berries themselves. CellPod could also help people who want to eat locally and organically be less dependent on seasons and pesticides. Producing food in a contained environment might seem unnatural in a way, says Reuter, “but then again, if you contain it, you don’t need agrochemicals. This is really clean food in that sense.”

Alexandra Taylor

Photo credit: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Last Changes: 11.25.2016

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