Clean Meat Research at Harvard Medical School, Courtesy of GFI
The Good Food Institute is pleased to announce that we have awarded a grant to Marie Gibbons, M.S. student in Physiology and groundbreaking clean meat researcher.

As a result of her previous research at NC State University with New Harvest, Marie grew the world’s first turkey nugget produced through cellular agriculture. She also established “immortalized” turkey cell lines—that is, a “starter pack” of turkey cells that can be used over and over again to create clean meat, without having to get a sample from an actual animal. 

                                                            Marie's jackfruit and turkey nugget!

Now GFI is helping to fund her research in Dr. George Church’s legendary lab at Harvard Medical School, where she will research methods to scale up clean meat technology. 

Yes, this does make me feel like I wasted my time in college. 

I asked Marie to tell me more about her work, life, and motivations. We know this is a long one, but we promise it’s worth it: from tiger training to turkey nuggets, Marie has quite the story to tell! 

[If you’re reading this and have no idea what clean meat is, you might want to start here! For a slightly deeper dive, you can check out our overview of the critical technologies involved in this process.] 

Without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Marie!

You’ve already made tremendous strides in clean meat research for avian cell lines. What’s the current status of your research, and what are you planning to do with the support of the fresh funding? 

You are too kind! Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten the opportunity to scratch the surface of cell line establishment, serum-free media development, plant-based scaffolding, bioreactor growth, and, just recently, vascularized 3D tissue formation! If you look at GFI’s upcoming Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) for clean meat, you will see that one of the biggest hurdles (and one of the most important, in my opinion) is large scale production. So that’s what I am focusing on: serum-free, large-scale, undifferentiated muscle cell proliferation in suspension to be exact. Once we have that figured out, we can start churning out nuggets, burgers, and sausages like nobody’s business!

[Don’t worry everyone, GFI’s Clean Meat TRA will be available to the public soon!]

In fact, some of my back-of-the-envelope calculations project that a 30 liter bioreactor can produce more than 5lbs of pure muscle per day… and what about when you scale it up? Using a 20,000 liter bioreactor, we are looking at more than 600 tons of muscle per year, all being produced in a container the size of an above-ground backyard swimming pool. To be fair, we would need a good amount of swimming pools to meet the ever-growing annual global meat demand (around 650,000 5000 gallon pools, if anyone is counting) but that’s the whole point of scale-up, right? 

                                                  30 liter bioreactor used for cell production

When you think about the fact that there are more than 200,000 animal feeding operations in the U.S. alone, which one would hope are far larger than your average above-ground backyard swimming pool, the numbers are very much in our favor. This is why I’m so excited about the scale up research I’ll be using GFI’s grant to accomplish!

                                                                MG1 turkey muscle cell line

To that end, I introduced myself to Dr. George Church at the Effective Altruism Conference in Boston this past summer, and he has since agreed to let me join his lab at Harvard Medical School to further investigate large-scale clean meat research this upcoming semester. More specifically, I will be looking at several media additives, cell-signalling pathways, transcription factors, and genes associated with cell cycle progression, telomerase expression, differentiation, and adhesion. The goal is to figure out how we can promote scalable, single-cell, unlimited cell proliferation in high-density suspension using serum-free media additives, while still maintaining the cell’s ability to differentiate into a fully developed (and tasty) muscle fiber. 

What do you hope to learn and accomplish with your research grant?

I’m hoping to explore the next steps in large-scale muscle cell production. By better understanding the cellular mechanisms involved with promoting unlimited and controllable cell growth, we can begin working on the resources needed to make this happen on a large scale. This research is addressing both serum-free media formulations and large-scale cell production, and in the end, I intend to be growing cells in single-cell suspension using serum-free media. 

                                                    Just another day at the meat brewery

I am also hoping to get a better understanding of my potential as a researcher in both an academic and industrial setting. This will help me decide if my next move will involve pursuing a PhD or working with a clean meat company... or maybe both! 

Oh, and I can’t leave this out because it’s just too cool. One of Dr. Church’s research projects involves bringing the wooly mammoth back from extinction, and he just so happens to have some elephant cells and sequenced mammoth DNA. Is anyone up for some clean mammoth meat? Per Dr. Church, it would be the ultimate paleo diet! 

Ha! He has a point! This is all incredibly exciting, but I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy working in such a nascent field. What has been the greatest challenge to your research thus far?

Yikes, this is a tough one. A lot of my time spent in the cellular agriculture field has been absolutely amazing! I can’t imagine a more fulfilling career than working toward something I’m extremely passionate about, all the while utilizing my personal strengths and interests. But, as a woman and an animal rights advocate, I am bound to face challenges anywhere I go. And unfortunately, the STEM field is no exception.

The majority of people I have worked with have been overwhelmingly supportive, respectful, and excited about my research. However, I have also dealt with inappropriate behavior from academic superiors and witnessed appalling and unapproved animal treatment in the lab. 

I think the take-away is that regardless of the difficulties you may face in a research setting, keep your chin up and don’t let it stop you. And know that there are tons of people in this field that are here to support you if you refuse to compromise your values. I am extremely grateful for GFI’s support, both financially and personally. Without you, my continued research wouldn’t be possible.

We've got your back, Marie. Now, tell me a little more about what led up to your interest in cell ag. What were you doing previously? What were your thoughts on animal agriculture and how did your life experiences conspire to form those opinions?

I grew up on a small farm in North Carolina, but the animals on the farm were raised as companions, not for food. I guess I was never taught to see any differences between a dog and a chicken, since they were both part of my family and equally treated as such.

              Why did the turtle cross the street? Because Marie and her dad were kind enough to help!

Before getting involved in clean meat research, I was mainly involved in hands-on animal work. Since I love animals and science, I always played with the idea of becoming a vet, but I definitely explored my options first! I dropped out of school during my sophomore year of college and moved to Miami to become a tiger trainer. Later that summer, I moved to a small Island in Alaska and worked as a brown bear rehabber for 4 months, which was amazing! I also worked as a horse wrangler on a cattle ranch for about a month.

                                           Marie presenting at a "Wild Encounter" tiger show

These experiences made me realize that while I loved working with animals, I was really more interested in how I could help them. Which brought me back to the whole “vet school” idea. As a farm animal vet, I thought I could help animals by educating farmers about the financial benefits associated with better welfare standards. So I went back to college, completed my degree, and was accepted into North Carolina’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Concurrently, I began working for a farm animal vet tech to gain more experience. 

                                                                         vet tech life

As a large animal veterinary technician, I visited hundreds of local, pasture raised, family owned, Animal Welfare Approved facilities. I quickly discovered that even animals on these farms were often subjected to poor living conditions and painful operations, generally without anesthetic. It seemed that my work was only putting a BandAid on a larger problem. It was during this time that I confirmed that veterinary medicine wasn’t for me and started seriously considering the science behind clean meat.

How were you first introduced to clean meat, and what made you take the leap into pursuing research in this field yourself?

My upbringing didn’t just influence my philosophy on treating animals with respect, it’s also the reason I first considered the idea of clean meat! Albeit my first clean meat idea wasn’t meant for people... 

In addition to being brought up with farm animals in the house, I also lived with a lot of exotic birds, fish, rodents, and reptiles. When I was 11 or 12, my dad brought home two boa constrictors – Caesar and Cleopatra. I thought they were perfect in every way – until it was time to feed them. When I discovered my dad thawing out some frozen mice, I was confused. I couldn’t understand why we had to kill mice in order to feed snakes, both of whom I considered equally worthy of life and love. My dad explained that snakes needed meat in order to live, so I started thinking about how we could just… grow mouse meat? Unfortunately, I got stuck on how a snake could safely digest a battery-operated robotic mouse skeleton, so I moved on to other things. 

However, the idea of being able to grow meat instead of killing for it resurfaced when I began work as a veterinary technician. It became increasingly obvious that while the farmers cared for their animals, many were struggling financially to compete with large factory farms and couldn’t always afford the best treatment (like administering pain medication during routine operations). There didn’t seem to be a way to make animal farming both humane and efficient enough to meet the demand for meat, except to end it altogether and replace it with a better production method.

Thanks for your work creating this better method, Marie, and for taking the time to talk with me. We’re looking forward to sharing more about your research as it progresses!

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The GFI Research Excellence in Alternative Proteins (REAP) Fund enables GFI to strategically support research projects that show the most promise for advancing the fields of plant-based and clean meat and for which alternative sources of funding are currently not available or may take significant time to secure.

To submit a research proposal for GFI REAP funding, please complete our GFI REAP Fund Researcher Proposal Form

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