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The (finless) future of fish production

12 September 2018, at 8:34am

Portions of fish that have been produced in bioreactors are going to be available in restaurants by 2019 thanks to a project that should fundamentally challenge the way that we think about fish production.

So explained Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods, who challenged delegates at the Aquaculture Innovation Europe to completely reimagine the future of fish production.

“As a biochemist I think of fish as three cells types –the muscle cells provide the protein, the fat cells provide the taste mostly and the connective tissues provide the texture of the fish that we love, so at Finless Foods we’re taking fish production back to basics and stripping it down to its raw components,” he said.

“Instead of using a fish as piece of machinery that makes fish meat for people to eat we’re going one step beyond that, or one step lower than that, and building that directly from the cells themselves,” he continued.

To do that the company isolates satellite cells from a real fish and cultivates them in a lab, in a nutrient-rich growth media – made of salts, sugars and proteins – before structuring, packing and shipping them to people.

“This isn’t vegetarian, vegan or plant-based – we’re creating the same fish that people already eat, we’re just using a different means of production in order to create it,” Selden said.

The company’s first product came out as a sort of fish paste.

“But we’re not interested in stopping there,” he continued. “The fish paste is great and there’s lots we can do with it, but we want to take it a step further.”

And by using technology adapted from 3-D organ printing the company hopes to add texture to the fish.

“This is medical-grade technology and we’re trying to bring it down to commodity levels,” he explained.

“After that you end up with something more similar to the steaks, fillets and sashimi that people are more familiar with,” he continued.

Advantages over conventional production

Selden went on to compare his synthetic production system with typical salmon mariculture.

“What we can do with two 1000l bioreactors is create 950-1520 tonnes of fish in a system with a 4-metre footprint in a 24-38 month period, whereas with salmon mariculture in nets the yield is 400-800 tonnes per 50m pen in the same period,” he argued.

“Big ocean cages are expense, they’re risky and you can’t really control the environment that well and they do a lot of damage,” he reflected.

He also pointed to the lack of waste in the synthetic system.

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“What’s more the weight of the fish being produced in the nets is not the actual weight that’s brought to market…We have about a 90% efficiency rate, whereas fish is about 56% edible fish meat,” he pointed out, while the rest is things like bones and blood.

While the technology might seem futuristic, he pointed to a raft of other companies already using synthetic biology to produce edible products – companies such as Wild Earth, which creates cheaper dog food using microbial fermentation and doesn’t need animal inputs and Geltor, which is building gelatine entirely without animals.

“It’s actually really cool because they’re using DNA from real animals and actually got their hands on some mastodon DNA, so I was able to eat a mastodon gummy bear – one of the first people for thousands of years to eat anything like that,” Selden enthused.

Equally there are already firms producing hamburgers, without beef, foie gras without ducks and chicken without chickens.

“I guess what I’m advocating is a shift to cell-based agriculture as opposed to animal-based agriculture,” he continued.

“Working with these massively complex systems like animals have so many variables and are such a black box in so many ways, as opposed to working with cellular biology – considerably fewer variables, considerably easier to work with, a considerably simpler system,” Selden argued.

“With the simpler system come a lot of advantages, we can edit on a very minute level the type of nutrients that people are looking for – it they’re looking for a certain cut of fish that is more prized over other products we can just create that over and over again – we’re not growing the entire fish, we’re only growing the parts that people are interested in,” he explained.

Challenges

The main challenge now for the company is to reduce its production costs – by lowering the costs of nutrients given to the cells, selectively breeding the cells to create more efficient cell lines and creating more efficient recycling systems for the nutrients in the systems.

He ended the talk with a quote.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

The quote was – remarkably – from 1932, and – even more remarkably – from Winston Churchill, in an essay titled ‘50 years hence’.

“This is something that will come, it’s a question of when, not if,” Selden concluded.

Senior Editor at The Fish Site
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