Can Lab-Grown Fish Help Save Our Oceans?

Bay Area biotech company Finless Foods hopes to have a bluefin tuna replacement by 2019

By Dan Q. Dao

Published on September 19, 2017

Lab-grown protein is one of the most exciting frontiers in food technology, with startup on startup vying to deliver us salvation from our cruel and environmentally-unsound slaughterhouse industry. And while the likes of plant-based poultry and meat have gotten the most air time (hello, Okja?), it's time we dive into test-tube seafood as well.

As the Atlantic reports, University of Massachusetts, Amherst biology grads Bryan Wyrwas, 24, and Mike Selden, 26, have been cooking up a recipe for in-vitro fish fillets through their biotech startup, Finless Foods. Drawing the blueprint for their idea on a bar napkin over a round of drinks while undergraduates, the duo are already making waves by targeting Pacific bluefin tuna, the severely overfished sushi favorite whose stock faces imminent collapse by 2048. Their method? To use regenerative stem cells, cultured outside the fish, to mimic fish muscle by depriving them of nutrients.

It's a lofty goal, no doubt, but there is an ethical and environmental demand. Beef has long shouldered much of the blame for the carbon footprint caused by food production and agriculture, which represents a third of all global greenhouse gases emissions, but seafood isn't exactly off the hook. According to Quartz, a whopping 90% of all fish sold in the United State are imported—a fact that high-end sushi restaurants tend to tout with their flown-straight-from-Japan marketing.

Wyrwas and Selden believe that in-vitro fish will be more easily achievable than other engineered proteins, including lower production costs by being able to culture fish cells at room temperature. They also have another advantage in century-old Japanese practice of surimi—making a gelatinous paste of fish that can be infused with starch, egg white, MSG, and a number of other flavorings to yield products like imitation crab or fish balls. In short, there are plenty of existing methods for replicating exact seafood flavors and textures that simply don’t exist for big cuts of meat. All Wyrwas and Selden need to do is provide the regenerative cell technology.

But while the team behind Finless Foods likes to highlight the differences they have between their beef-and-chicken competitors, there’s one thing they all share: it will be some time before we’re able to pick up lab-grown anything from the supermarket. Wyrwas and Selden are aiming for 2019—they’ve hosted a tasting of an “unstructured prototype,” or mash of cultured cells—promising not just the taste but the “sound, sizzle, smell, and consistency of a fish fillet.”

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