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Cellular Agriculture – Moving Towards a More Sustainable Method of Milk Production

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Worldwide demand for milk is continually increasing in response to a range of factors, including global population growth and changing diets in countries such as China and India. To meet this demand, around 270 million dairy cows are farmed worldwide. Dairy farming in some areas is now more intensive than ever, with milk production in some breeds of dairy cow doubling in the past 40 years. This has resulted in higher pressure on natural resources, increased welfare issues, and greater production of greenhouse gases.

As part of efforts to provide a more sustainable method of milk production, TurtleTree Labs has developed a cellular method, which bypasses the environmental and animal welfare issues of industrial dairy.

Technology Networks recently spoke with Fengru Lin, the founder of TurtleTree Labs, to learn more about the method and the benefits it could offer.

Anna MacDonald (AM): Could you tell us a little about TurtleTree Labs and your focus? What was the motivation behind setting up the company?

Fengru Lin (FL):
TurtleTree Labs (TTL) is the first biotechnology company in the world to use cell-based technology to produce milk of all mammals in vitro. The milk produced by TTL’s proposed approach has the ability to match nutritional content, taste, and quality of milk obtained traditionally. The company currently has presence both in Singapore and San Francisco. TTL is supported by a team of industry experts both in the business and scientific segments of the business. The need for such technology is apparent, driven by a few factors – the current unsustainable way of producing milk through cattle farming; the lack of comparable alternatives to milk; and the limited sources of consistent quality milk. We envision a future where all children and families anywhere in the world have access to safe, clean milk. We aim to be a knowledge-based company, innovating on our milk products.

AM: What about using plant-based milk alternatives instead?

Milk from plants like almond, soy and oat is increasingly popular as a good source of protein. However, the milk from these alternative sources lacks one or more components of dairy milk, therefore, are not able to recreate the functionality of milk, translating to other dairy products like cheese, butter and yoghurt. TurtleTree Labs’ proposed approach to create real milk can help support the growth of the dairy industry that demands the full functionality and key composition of real milk.

AM: Can you give us an overview of the stem cell technology you are using to create milk in the lab?

TurtleTree Labs' acellular technology works by culturing mammary cells in vitro and inducing their natural ability to produce all components of milk. Cellular agriculture is entirely safe and widely used in the market today. The first step involves obtaining stem cells from sources such as milk. They are then transferred into an environment where they convert into mammary gland cells. The mammary gland cells interact with a special formula which causes the cells to lactate. The end product - milk is obtained through a filtration process.

AM: What are the challenges of producing milk in this way? How does this compare with producing other lab-grown products such as meat?

The main difference between our method of producing milk as compared to other lab-grown meat is that we do not consume the cells as part of the process, hence we are able to scale quickly. Cell-based meat companies require large amounts of power resources, growth factors and clean environments to scale up production. TurtleTree Labs’ novel method uses cells as the “factories” for milk. Under this method, an immortalised cell-line will be developed so that these “factories” can produce milk for hundreds of cycles before having to be proliferated again. I would say that the greatest challenge we would face is probably the monitoring of cell performance as it will affect quality of the product.

AM: Where do you see the future of cellular agriculture headed?

This application of this technology on food is increasingly popular. Producing meat and dairy traditionally releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other type of food production. Cell-based processes of creating clean milk completely bypass the environmental degradation and animal welfare issues of industrial dairy. We will definitely see more companies coming out with innovative solutions using cellular methods.

Fengru Lin was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer, Technology Networks.