Like seeing the lobster in a tank at a seafood restaurant, inside a new food production facility under construction in San Francisco, visitors will soon be able to sit in a tasting room and try sushi made with salmon grown on the other side of a glass wall. Except the salmon won’t be swimming before you eat it.
Like other startups in the cellular agriculture space, Wildtype, the company building the pilot plant, is focused on how to grow meat—in their case, seafood—from cells in bioreactors instead of animals. Cofounder Aryé Elfenbein, a cardiologist, started thinking about the possibility five years ago. “I was working on stem cell research when I thought of this question, that’s sort of a strange one: Do we need animals to have meat?” he says. “Or is it possible to just produce the meat that we consume outside of the animals?”
While some other companies work on lab-grown chicken or lab-grown leather, and there are numerous plant-based meats on the market, Wildtype saw a need for more alternatives to fish. “Seafood is the most consumed protein by our species on earth,” says cofounder Justin Kolbeck. “And there really aren’t many alternative seafood products on the market at all. You’ve got many, many different options for burgers. You’ve got a whole lot of chicken nugget options. But if you want to find an alternative for some of your favorite seafood dishes, it’s really hard.”
Instead of trying to mimic salmon with soy or other plants, the company grows actual fish cells in stainless steel tanks. “The cells we use are really programmed, it’s in their DNA, to organize and mature in the same way that they would within the animal,” says Elfenbein. “We provide them with the same nutrients that the fish would consume in the wild—proteins and fats and carbohydrates and minerals. And essentially have them grow in a system that looks kind of like a beer brewery.”
A scaffold made from plant-based ingredients helps the cells organize into a recognizable shape. “If you provide a very hard surface for them, they will adapt and conform in ways that they can become cells that are more like cartilage or bone and provide them with a very soft surface that can be something more like fat, for example,” he says. Its current product, eaten in something like sushi, tastes virtually indistinguishable from salmon caught in the ocean, the company says. The nutritional profile is similar, but the company is still tweaking the composition; right now, it has slightly less protein but a similar fat composition, including omega-3 fatty acids.
As with beef and pork, there are strong environmental arguments for finding new ways to provide salmon to consumers. “You’re not even allowed to legally fish Atlantic salmon anymore, because they’re endangered,” he says. “And then many of the places up and down the Pacific coast, where we live, all of the types of Pacific salmon are either endangered or at risk. So I think it’s clear that we can’t rely on wild-catch fishing for our seafood going forward for salmon.” Fishing, in general, poses risks beyond destroying biodiversity; deep-sea trawling, for example, may release as much carbon dioxide from the ocean floor as flying does in the atmosphere. Fish farms can cause water pollution, and they rely on catching smaller fish for food. None of this can be environmentally sustainable as the demand for fish continues to grow.
“While people in the fishing and aquaculture industries are doing our best to try to keep up with these environmental demands and spike in demand from a volume perspective, it just isn’t going to be enough, right? We need new solutions,” says Elfenbein.
The startup is working with regulators at the FDA as the agency figures out how to regulate a new type of food. (In a world first, Singapore recently approved the first lab-grown chicken; the U.S. may not be very far behind.) For now, Wildtype will only provide tastings, and it’s not clear how long it will be before it can move forward with commercial sales. But in its new pilot plant, the company is already preparing for future growth by testing production methods at a larger scale.
“We somehow need to figure out how we’re going to feed the next 3 billion people on this planet,” he says. “For us to be able to even make a dent in that, we need to be operating at a tremendously large scale. Because we don’t want to just create food that’s at one or two expensive sushi restaurants on the West Coast, right? We want this product to eventually be in every Costco and Trader Joe’s, and have it at a price that’s cost-competitive, if not cheaper, than what you find on the shelves in the grocery store today.”