The world needs a radical rethink on how we go about food production, if we are going to make world hunger vanish into history. One of the organisations at the forefront of making scientific breakthroughs in new approaches is Roslin Technologies.

The company is a joint venture between the University of Edinburgh and two Agriculture-focused private equity companies, JBI Equity and Milltrust International. It was incorporated in 2016 with a £10 million capital raising round and works closely with the world-famous Roslin Institute at the University.

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Professor Jacqui Matthews, Chief Scientific Officer at Roslin Technologies, points out the company is focused on moving scientific concepts from the intellectual property stage through to commercial opportunities then scaling them up to become globally significant.

“We have a conveyer belt of opportunities, not just locally within Edinburgh, taking advantage of our close relationship with the Roslin Institute, but also internationally, as well as those technologies we are deriving ourselves. An example of our international reach is the way we are working with other companies, such as our Singapore-based partner Protenga,” she comments.

One of the most exciting projects Roslin Technologies is involved in surrounds cultivated meat protein products. The company is at the centre of commercialising lab-generated cultivated meat for commercial sale and is working with partners across the globe, including those in Singapore, which is one of the first countries in the world to give approval to cultivated meat for human consumption.

“One of the main drivers for the cultivated meat sector is to move significant amounts of protein production into cellular agriculture to help reduce the environmental footprint of livestock agriculture,” she comments.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, methane and other gases produced by cows, along with deforestation to make way for pasture and feedstuff production for all livestock types, creates a considerable burden on the environment. This is alongside increasing levels of meat consumption globally, which is associated with significant rises in the eating of beef in countries, such as China, where there has been increasing prosperity. Indeed, worldwide meat production has quadrupled since 1961.

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Better sustainability in the food chain can be addressed in two main ways; first, to produce traditional meat more sustainably (through more efficient production, including precision farming, better breeding, and improved disease control) and, secondly, to make alternative proteins that can help fill the gap in consumers’ needs. Alternative proteins include those made from plants and now animal-based products that can be cultivated in the laboratory.

Professor Matthews points out Roslin Technologies has been able to make a number of key breakthroughs in cellular technologies to support cultivated meat production. In particular, the company has developed and is patenting proprietary methods for making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from animals.

This is a significant departure from earlier efforts to cultivate meat in the laboratory as these cells do not require the use of a blood product, serum obtained from foetal calves, to cultivate them.

“There have been a number of attempts to produce iPS cell lines from animal tissues to follow on from successes with rodent and human cells. However, scientists have struggled to come up with robust iPS cell lines from other animal species. We succeeded here at Roslin Technologies, with dog and pig iPS cells; these have massive potential to play a significant part in medical advances for dogs and in the production of cultivated pork products. With the latter in mind, we are now turning our focus to generate iPS cells from other livestock such as cattle,” Professor Matthews comments.

“We aim to place animal welfare and sustainability at the centre of our work. Because the cells we produce grow FBS-free, our cells are truly slaughter-free,” she notes.

Another issue is that, with other types of cells traditionally used to make cultivated meat, they have a natural lifespan, so after a while no matter how successful the cultivation process is, the cells die, and new cultures have to be made from scratch. The iPS cells are immortal and production is continuous, which is a huge bonus for scale-up and regulatory approval steps.

The company has now demonstrated that their iPS cells can be turned into (differentiated) muscle and fat type cells, key ingredients in cultivated meat.

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Professor Matthews points out that, in future, by combining muscle and fat cells the texture of the meat protein can be tailored to closely resemble that of traditional meat, with none of the disadvantages, and can be made locally to reduce the environmental cost of food supply chains in areas where there is no or little livestock farming.

The work Roslin Technologies has done in iPS cells has other significant applications by helping to provide alternative therapeutic screening tools for the pharma industry. “By using iPS cells to make different target cell types, we can reduce the need for using live animals in early stage research in drug and vaccine discovery. Furthermore, these iPS cells make great tools for gene editing studies to investigate the cause and help find solutions for a variety of genetic diseases.”

In addition to its work on iPS cells, Roslin Technologies is also active in several other fields.

One of the most exciting of these is its breeding enhancement work with Black Soldier Flies. The larvae of these flies are being hailed around the world as a potent source of protein. Black Soldier Fly farming is rapidly becoming a global production industry in its own right.

“As with any mass farming, where you have large numbers of a particular species in close proximity to each other, disease in that population also becomes a problem. We are developing a Black Soldier Fly breeding programme to bring about more capability and resilience in the population,” Matthews explains.

For Roslin Technologies, working on the science of sustainable protein from multiple angles allows it to focus on high-growth, high-impact areas. This is also reflected in the ambitious plans the company has. They are currently fundraising for future growth, and were highlighted as one of Scotland’s ‘futurecorns’, emphasising how their unique business model will help transform the sustainable FoodTech sector.

For more information visit www.roslintech.com

This article appeared in The Herald COP26 report on the sustainable food sector in Scotland