Cellulose Scaffolds for Cultured Meat Production

March 24, 2021

Santiago Campuzano, a former New Harvest Fellow, received his MSc from the University of Ottawa under the supervision of Andrew Pelling. In this episode, Alex Shirazi interviews Santiago about how celery can be repurposed as animal-free scaffolding capable of recreating alignment of skeletal muscle cells in vitro. Transcript is below.


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Alex (00:04):

Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food show. I’m excited to have Santiago Campuzano as the guest for today’s episode. This episode is part of the New Harvest Fellowship series. Santiago Campuzano, a former Research Fellow received his Master’s from the University of Ottawa under the supervision of Andrew Pelling. While at the Pelling lab, Santiago’s research demonstrated how celery can be repurposed as animal-free scaffolding, capable of recreating alignment and skeletal muscle cells in vitro. Now residing in Vancouver, Santiago currently works as a bioengineer at Stem Cell Technologies. Santiago is also an active member of the Open Science Network, a local community lab, devoted to educating community members and facilitating multi-disciplinary collaborations. I had a great chat with Santiago, let’s jump right in.

Alex (00:59):

Santiago. I’d like to welcome you to the Future Food Show.

Santiago (01:02):

Thank you so much for having me, Alex. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Alex (01:06):

Santiago, please tell us about your background and your current research projects.

Santiago (01:10):

Yeah, so maybe you’ll talk a little bit about my time in academia. So I received my Bachelor’s of science and food science from the University of British Columbia here in Vancouver, Canada. Beautiful, beautiful Vancouver. And then after I finished that, I moved over to Ottawa to pursue my Master’s of science and biology under Andrew Pelling in the Pelling lab. And as part of my undergraduate work, I actually pursued an undergraduate thesis, which was basically looking at bacterial cellulose as a potential scaffolding material for culture meat. And those were kind of like my first sort of experience and research. And it was extremely valuable. Yeah. So after completing that, I guess I learned a lot from that. There were a lot of very interesting, cool experiences. I came out of that and then I moved to Ottawa where I pursued my Master’s all that you mentioned already. And the goal of the Master’s year was to look at decellularised plant tissue and how that can become a scaffolding material for culture meat production.

Alex (02:11):

So you’re in Vancouver now?

Santiago (02:12):

Yeah. So I resigned in Vancouver, I guess. And just to talk about the current projects I’m currently working at a local biotech company here as a bioengineer, I guess I have the odd kind of side project off the side of my desk. Maybe we can expand on that later on.

Alex (02:25):

I see. Okay. Okay. And so did you officially then finish your Master’s program? And when was that?

Santiago (02:31):

Well, I graduated about a year and a half ago, so I’ve been here in Vancouver for about a year and a half, and then I submitted my thesis there. I’d put out a manuscript for my research and also a review paper that was published as well.

Alex (02:44):

Okay, great. And so we’ll definitely dive into the research that you did as part of your Master’s. But first I really want to ask how was that drive from Vancouver to Ottawa? That’s quite a trip.

Santiago (02:55):

Oh my God. So it was very interesting because I left and obviously as a student, I didn’t have a lot of money, but I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to do it. I think I saw it as an opportunity to like, get, to see Canada in a way portions of it and just get to see the landscape across a number of provinces. So it was a total of seven days drive in and it was about eight days, roughly about six to eight hours per day. I was still also a new driver, I guess I learned how to drive later on. So I was 1. very nervous, 2. I didn’t have a lot of money. So this thought of what if my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere really it’s just kept crossing my mind. It was really cool. I got to see a lot. And then I did it on the way back as well, but I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of work.

Alex (03:43):

So hopefully it was in the summer, right?

Santiago (03:45):

It was yeah. Both of them. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think I would recommend anyone doing that in the winter. I wouldn’t do it.

Alex (03:50):

Oh man. I remember I was driving. I think it was like from the Kitchener or Waterloo area over to Ottawa and even that much shorter trip was just like in the, in the winter. So that was crazy. I saw it, there was a truck that had fallen over. It was just insane. It was in the middle of a blizzard. So I can’t imagine doing a longer trip like that in the winter, but seven days that’s quite a trip. And Canada is very beautiful. So I’m kind of glad that you were able to make that trip. But my next question is really about the Pelling lab and the question is really what makes it so unique. And I want to ask that because Andrew Pelling’s lab is really one of the most well branded labs and it’s one of the coolest I’ve ever read about or watched videos about. What makes it so unique?

Santiago (04:32):

I was thinking a lot about that. And honestly, I would say the most valuable thing, obviously yes, you learn a lot. And the topics and techniques that you’re exposed to are extremely valuable, but I would say the most, most valuable thing I got from there is how empowering it is. And let me expand on that. I think what the lab is really good at doing is that encouraging the researchers to basically blur the boundaries of their respective fields and the lab was basically a multidisciplinary space. So it brought scientists as a biologist, let’s say engineers physicists together to basically ask weird questions, questions that were unconventional. I think it’s the best way of putting into. And as I mentioned, it, it allowed for us to blur the lines of our respective fields. I think I came in with a mentality that because you were a biologist, you could not learn to program, or if you encounter a problem that requires any sort of engineering, then the mentality was usually to just say that’s for someone else to do.

Santiago (05:34):

But the lab was very good at empowering people to think beyond that and to say, yes, I’m a biologist, but I think I’m able to learn the engineering required to develop a prototype that will help me study what I want to do or to introduce the sort of new tool, I guess that would make my job easier or that will maybe improve the rigor of the analysis, things like that. And just to give a good example, I, when I arrived there, I remember showing up there and I remember seeing my friend, Sebastian, who is the CEO of Incuvers. Who’s now the CEO of Incuvers. At that time, I remember watching him and he was finishing up his PhD, which was also in biology. But what was really empowering was just watching them work, developing and assembling incubators. So they started this company, which is now Incuvers. And at that point he was basically the engineer building the incubators. So it was extremely empowering because I remember just thinking, I was just like, where did you learn how to do this? How did you learn? Where did you learn or who were you watching? So I started asking them and they’re basically more or less self-taught. I think they were driven by the passion to tackle this problems. And I think Andrew and the lab encourage that, encouraged us to tackle those problems beyond our respective fields. And so I was even in, I think like most people, I struggled with this like imposter syndrome. What am I doing here? All these people that are so talented, but it was very empowering to see that all of them were just like me in a way they all started off as physicists who then had to learn the biology or the engineer would learn the biology and the biologists would look who learned that the engineering, it also taught me the importance of, as Andrew would say a lot, is the importance of play.

Santiago (07:03):

I think when we became passionate about very odd projects or very as experiments that were unconventional. But I think a lot of times people were passionate about just seeing it, turning this vision into something that was actually tangible would often be very challenging, but it would teach us and teach you, I guess, teach you a lot because I guess you would spend so much time troubleshooting this experiment that was very unconventional or there might not be a lot of background behind it. It would be very novel and it might be also completely useless. But I think the skills that you acquire from that made a lot of the other work that they was considered as quote unquote, useful work, made it a lot easier to pursue, implement, complete. So I would say, yeah, I would say it was a very empowered place. Andrew really allowed us to really ask unconventional questions, do projects that were not necessarily considered to be useful. And it also allowed us to collaborate with a number of people. People from different fields allowed us to collaborate with artists. I think artists brought in a really important piece to this puzzle, which was the creativity that they brought was extremely valuable. The way of seeing things was very valuable. And I think it taught me also the importance of art and science and even more importantly, just the importance. And now that I see it, I guess in research and development is the importance of creativity in science and in research. So yeah, I would say it was just the, just how empowering the, the spaces, the opportunities that we had to collaborate with other people. And then the last thing that I’ll mention too, and I give Andrew prompts with is, is that I don’t think he ever, he never really got caught up with people. Like I didn’t have the best grades and I obviously didn’t have the background. I had a food science background that I was never seemed to be a major limitation. I think it didn’t often reflect on how good of a researcher you would become later on. So it was really cool to see. Also a lot of my colleagues were not necessarily the A plus students, but they became excellent researchers and that we’re extremely creative.

Alex (08:59):

Wow. So art, programming, biology, it’s starting to click as to why. And what we’re seeing out of the Pelling lab is actually so exciting. So tell us about your Bachelor’s thesis and the work that you were actually doing in your Bachelor’s. And I think you mentioned food science?

Santiago (09:17):

I feel like this is, I guess, one of the things that I wanted to touch on, because it was kind of an unconventional introduction to the field you can say, and maybe this is also a segue into kind of how I got into cellular agriculture in a way. So when I was on my second year, I was going through that phase of, “Oh no, I have to specialize. You can say right. I have to decide what I want to go into. Now, I’m doing general science. Now I have to pick.” And I remember at that time I’ve been always passionate about just physical activity, exercise, weight lifting. And I was going through a phase where I was very much into weightlifting at that point. And one of the things that goes with weightlifting was this idea that we need to consume tons of protein, right? You’ve got to have massive protein intake, which is often encompassed by meat consumption and lots of it. But I was facing this dilemma of, I knew where the meat was coming from. And I think also as an animal lover myself, and as somebody who cares about the environment that I was facing this dilemma, I’m very passionate about what I’m doing now, but I know the impact that it’s having on the environment and the animals that’s that I’m very much passionate about in the very much off. So at that point, so I remember watching the Ted talk by Andras, who’s the CEO of Modern Meadow. Last time I checked and I saw this Ted talk. It was very inspiring. It was very inspiring because there’s this idea of, Oh my God, like I can’t have my cake and eat it too. Like I can enjoy the meat, which I enjoy and it kind of plays a role into this kind of hobby and this passion that I have at the moment, and now I’m not impacting the environment as much or impacting the animals. So I started thinking, I was like, okay, maybe what I should look into is food science. I realized that this idea at that point was this idea of cellular agriculture was at the interface of kind of engineer and our tissue engineering and food science. So I decided to go into food science. I came to the realization that the food science that I was learning was very far away from what I wanted to learn or what I thought I needed to learn. And it was mostly just, it was a very multidisciplinary sort of field because it was basically composed of things like food, microbiology, food analysis, food chemistry, labeling and regulations and things like that, which to be honest, I think will become very applicable down the road, especially as cultured meat continues to, I guess, move forward. So anyway, so I was taking all these courses, but I kind of knew I needed to learn more about the cell culture side of things.

Santiago (11:30):

And now circling back on back to your question, on my fourth year, I had this opportunity to pursue, and it was an opportunity. It was optional to pursue an undergraduate graduate thesis, which was a total of 12 months. And, and just, I guess before I jump into the thesis work, the other thing that I was doing at that time was all of my electives were actually physiology courses or cell biology courses, which I did not do well on because there were very challenging courses on top of my course load. But they taught me a lot and I think they started giving me the skills that then allowed me to, I guess, prepare for future research down the road. And now talking about my undergraduate thesis at that point, I remember reaching out to New Harvest and I remember talking to Daan Luuining. And at that time it was, I think it was just Erin, Isha and Daan working on at New Harvest. And I remember reaching out to them and they told me about the conference. And then I was like, okay, I got to attend a conference somehow. I think at that time, I can’t remember the timeline exactly, but it was probably my third or fourth year of university. And I didn’t have any funding. So I remember just saving up to go to San Francisco and to attend that conference and just have that opportunity to meet them and just see the fields for what it was at that time.

Santiago (12:41):

So I was very inspired by that. So I started looking around for professors that would consider supervising my undergraduate thesis. So one of the conditions for you to pursue an undergraduate thesis at that time, and I think that the rules remained the same was that you had to find a Professor that was willing to supervise you. And that can be very challenging because most people would straight up tell you like, “nope, that’s not my area of research. No, I don’t do that.” Or just straight up, no reply back. Academic professor just ghosting you. So I encounter a lot of that. Most people were not willing to supervise me. And so I just kept pushing. And one thing that I’m like, okay, I’m going to put together a literature review. So I’m going to review the literature. I’m going to put together a project which Don helped me with at the time. And I’m going to start sending that off through professors. And then hopefully now they see that, but I have the vision for the project to have a project in place. And there was one professor who took a chance and he’s like, all right, let’s give it a whirl. His lab was actually in food toxicology, which was way out of my, the objective or the mission of my thesis. My thesis was then on bacterial cellulose as a potential scaffolding for, I guess, cultured meat production. And I was obviously I had no idea what the number of challenges that you encounter in research. And I was like, well, I have 10 months to figure this out. That’s plenty of time, but I was very wrong. A lot of things go wrong. Basically everything goes wrong, time flies. But just to kind of maybe dive a little deeper into the actual research.

Santiago (13:57):

So as I mentioned, the goal was to use bacterial cellulose with people who are not familiar with bacterial cellulose, bacterial cellulose is basically the SCOBY or this like gelatinous sort of mass that floats on top of kombucha. It has very interesting mechanical properties is super strong and it is very low cost. The producers is more often seen as a by-product of kombucha production. So what we wanted to do there was create an aligned bacterial cellulose, biomaterial, or scaffold. So, and what I mean by aligned is what we wanted to do was so the bacteria cell, all those is produced by bacteria that basically just float around in this filament that is composed of cellulose and they used that to float. So basically use it to remain at the air liquid interface. They’re basically as close to the air as you can be while still being in the liquid portion, which is where all the nutrients are, they would kind of extrude out this bacterial cellulose, but it’s a very amorphous structure. So there’s really no pattern to it, especially at like the micro level. So what we’re thinking, okay. What if we can guide this back period to extrude out these sort of filaments? So we implemented a couple of things. I remember trying to use like electricity to control the movement of the bacteria. We also try to introduce this kind of blender motion to also guide the bacteria. But that’s when I realized that research is very challenging, but I think if you’re passionate, you just keep working towards it. And what are the kind of cool tidbits here? That at that time that my prof was like, he said, go ahead, give it a whirl. And he said, but you have about a thousand dollars. And that sounds like a lot, but in research is not, it goes by really fast, just the bacteria alone, I think costs like $500 just to buy that bacteria. That lab, the cells that we’re working on were human and they were not muscle cells.

Santiago (15:32):

So one of the things that I wanted to do alongside my bacterial cellulose development, you can say is I wanted to get my hands on some muscle cells. At that point, I had never worked with muscle cells. So I started just thinking and thinking. And one of the issues here is to buy cells like buy the commercial cell line, for example, C2C12, they’re roughly over a thousand dollars. So I was like, okay, well I’m passed my budget. So I can’t do that. So I remember what I used to do, which was so funny now that I look back. So one of the things here, if you want to isolate cells from tissue, it has to be viable tissue. So it’s often a biopsy, right? So it’s coming from like a living organism. So it has to be basically fresh in order for those cells, when you remove them or you get that biopsy for them to remain viable in vitro, they need to come from a living organism or organism that was just euthanized, just died, no getting fresh samples from a slaughter house or anything like that.

Santiago (16:24):

It was very challenging. So one of the things I thought of is what if I just buy a fish from the store, from those tanks where they have the fishers coming around, because I remember going grocery shopping and seeing all these fish down and just run to the lab, get on the bus and just run with that fish. So that’s basically what I did as an effort to have my own muscle cells to work with in order to test my scaffolds. So I remember going to the store and buying a tilapia because that was the one thing they had. So I asked the lady, I was like, Hey, can I have that? The tilapia? And anyway, took them out. And we know where it goes from there. It was, to put a nicely, it was euthanized.

Alex (16:56):

Because they had to be a live fish, right?

Santiago (16:58):

They have to be a live fish. Exactly. So I want to get a live fish, fresh. Yeah. Wow. Okay. I guess I, at that point I was very naive with regards to any sort of regulations around like animal ethics and stuff like that in research. So I bought it, I would go to the store. I would run to the store first thing in the morning just to make sure I got to the lab on time. I would have all day to do this work. I would ask for the fish and just to not be wasteful. I remember bringing the fish home because once something goes into the lab, it doesn’t really come out. You don’t bring your food into lab and bring it back out and consume it. That’s unacceptable. So it was like, okay, I don’t want to bring the whole fish in because I only need about 10 grams of the fish. And that’s probably like a half pound. Maybe. I can’t remember how big the fish was. And I would try to get, like, I remember getting, I don’t know if it was like hand sanitizer and just rubbing the fish and taking a piece out and leaving the rest in the fridge for dinner. And I would think that piece, that kind of like biopsy and I would run to the lab and I would just try to, I had all of the enzymes and all this stuff that I needed to then try to isolate the cells that was a failed attempt. It did not work at all, but maybe as I get on later on to my Master’s research, I see the light at the end of the tunnel. But yeah, so that was kind of my undergrad experience and my undergrad tensions.

Alex (18:04):

Were you able to eventually isolate the cells from either fish or other species?

Santiago (18:08):

Yeah. So I didn’t have enough time to really optimize the protocol. I think the other thing that I learned was that fish, we’re very much used to culturing mammalian cells, for example, and at 37 degrees, which is why temperature. So most incubators are set at 37 degrees. The problem was that basically there was no incubator for me. I believe tilapia. I can’t remember the temperature, but it was 18, 23 degrees Celcius. I can’t remember. So I can’t remember if it was close to room temperature. I don’t, I don’t recall it being too cold, but I didn’t have the right incubator, I guess I didn’t have the right conditions, but maybe I’ll just jump ahead and we can come back to my Master’s research, but before finishing my Masters in Ottawa, I wanted to come back and I wanted to try isolating cells from trout.

Santiago (18:51):

Now, at that time we had all of the pieces were in place, you can say. So we were actually able to get the trout from one of our collaborators who was using it to study, I think like fish behavior. So they would do is basically they would do the research. They would end up euthanizing the fish to, I can’t remember exactly if it was the brain or what it was that they were looking at. Well, they basically did not need most of the fish. So what I used to do is I used to run. I used to have to cross the five buildings in my little car to go pick up his fish, put it in ice and run through the lab to then be able to isolate the cells. And I was able to successfully isolate this. We didn’t end up doing much because that was towards the end of my Master’s, but I can say that I was able to do it eventually. So I was probably about three years after my talapia experience.

Santiago (19:35):

Great. And that was a New Harvest funded project. Is that right?

Santiago (19:39):

Yeah. Yeah. It was a side project. So my main focus was the celery work, the decellularised plant work. So these are mouse muscle cells. So I wanted to use a more, maybe a more representative model, something that we can justify as being potential food product. So, yeah, so that was the idea. But like I said, it was towards the end of the Masters, so not much was done about that, but I guess it was happy ending for me learning how to isolate cells from fish.

Alex (20:09):

That was a really good description of what bacterial cellulose is. And I think thinking about that SCOBY for kombucha is a great visualization. Now from the plant-based scaffolding platform, that’s not the cellulose related. Can you tell us any additional information about the plant-based scaffolding platform that I read about?

Santiago (20:30):

Yeah. Yeah. So what was the main focus of my research in Ottawa? So the Pelling lab at that point already had a reputation of basically using decellularized plant, as I say, low cost, abundant and versatile sort of scaffolding or biomaterial from vitro for in vitro studies. So they already had that kind of had that reputation in place. So this idea of can we use this scaffolding as biomaterials as a potential platform or matrix for cultured meat production? The original thought was like, okay, let’s just look at different plants and different, I guess, types of mushrooms that are known to produce this sort of meaty, like mouthfeel, you can say. So I remember going into the store and just being like, all right, I’ll just buy a bunch of different vegetables. That to me feel meaty or like in potentially resemble meat, or I are known as like somehow like meat analogs, you can say there was, there’s some celery and mushrooms as well, some apples. And I just wanted to just see what they look like under the microscope. What do they look like? What’s the micro structure and just start writing some hypotheses around what can come out of this. So I really had no idea what I was doing, to be honest, I was trying to figure out what I wanted, what I was gonna do. And in that kind of curiosity driven, you can say never, I started looking at all of these vegetables under the microscope, which was super cool because I guess you never really think about it. I think we just consume them and we never really think about it. What does it look like? And I remember looking at celery and one of the things that really got my attention with celery was that the vascularization of celery saw the vascularization a way to envision it is if you cut a piece of celery, if you cross section and you look at that, cross-section you realize that it has this little kind of green dots.

Santiago (22:14):

And so these green dots are the vascularization of the celery. And when I looked at those under the microscope, I realized that these channels were more or less resembled kind of muscle fibers to me. And based on the literature, the diameters were optimal to induce and recreate alignment. So then the question might be what’s the importance of alignment. So that has been, I think one of the things that we’ve known for a long time is that the way cells are arranged really impacts how they respond to different cues, right? For example, drugs, different, let’s say biomaterials, how they interact with one another. But I think we’re used to just putting cells in a Petri dish and just letting them grow however they want. But in reality, cells are not just randomly scattered in tissue. They usually have some sort of orientation.

Santiago (23:02):

Muscle, obviously it’s a great example of that is composed of muscle fibers. So the cells are basically aligned in a specified direction, which then allows us to generate, I guess, force to move and do things like that. So like I said, I looked at these, I called the vascular bundle. So the vascularization of the celery, I realized that it was composed of these channels. And I hypothesized that these channels would induce alignment of these muscle cells and this alignment then would lead to the generation of these kind of immature muscle fibers. That was basically it. I think one of the benefits and one of the very attractive features of cellulose is that while it’s very abundant, right, it is making it low cost, it’s versatile and a lot of the structures that are present in the scaffold are in this kind of bio material are often very challenging and very difficult to reproduce say, synthetically, right?

Santiago (23:55):

So these micro channels are not necessarily easy to produce in the lab. They often require a set of skills, specialized equipment, which is often expensive. This platform, this decellularize celery, I saw it as basically two excellent things, good could come out of it. It would be an excellent tool for research and development because now you have this sort of platform that will basically allow you to study cells in these slightly more representative way, because now instead of having cells scattered on a dish, now you have cells aligned on a piece of celery. It’s a very low cost tool to study cells. Like I mentioned in a more representative way, this is also a potential scaffold in for cellular agriculture. And actually just, I was listening back to Isha’s podcast and she made an excellent comment, which was part of a bigger vision. It was this idea of “Can we generate some kind of hybrid food” where you have part of it is plant and part of it is animal because now you have this piece of celery, but animal cells basically attached to it.

Alex (24:58):

That’s super cool. And the question comes to mind, were there any collaborations between the WPI Gaudette lab? Cause there were also working on some decellularization projects, any collaborations there?

Santiago (25:12):

Not that I’m aware of. I mean, I don’t know if now possibly, but what was really cool though. I remember actually visiting Glenn, and actually I think it was New Harvest-led, we visited Glenn and it was really nice to also see his lab, but that was more of a New Harvest-led trip, you can say, or a field trip, but no, there was no collaboration like that I was aware of.

Alex (25:28):

Cool that you got to visit. These stories of going to the market and get fish or kind of going and get celery and other vegetables to thrown under a microscope reminds me of just a couple of stories I’ve heard, and I won’t name names, but one of them was this group that was like going to do an animal biopsy for developing cultured meat and on their way to the farm, they look at each other and they’re like, do you know how to do the biopsy? And then do you know how to do the biopsy? No. So they’re like, okay, let’s quickly look it up on YouTube. Cause we’re about to go to the farm in the next hour, we need to figure this out and they were successful. And another story is about muscle clearing. Somebody was experimenting and just very curious, like what if I use Listerine as muscle clearing solution and they tried it. And it’s just these types of kind of experiments in the lab just end up being, I think a lot of insights ended up coming from just the curiosity of a researcher.

Santiago (26:21):

Yeah. One thing that was very interesting to just briefly circle back to that tilapia story is that when I brought it in, you know, it did not work, but super interesting. There were tons of parasites at the end of the isolation period, let’s say right when I looked under the microscope of what do I have? And it was just like tons of little tiny worms. And I was like, Oh my God. And then the thought that I’m like, that’s the same that I plan to eat later. It was very interesting. It was very interesting. I mean it, parasites in fish are not uncommon and that’s just one of the reasons why we cooked them well for the most part.

Alex (26:52):

I guess on like social media, you’ll see that microscopic view of those parasites and digging deeper it’s really crazy thinking about the types of food that we eat and what we can eat, et cetera. You gave us a great highlight of your research. What are some insights that you’ve learned from being in industry now?

Santiago (27:10):

Yeah, so obviously can’t really disclose too much with my job and I always see it as just that respect, but I think what’s been very interesting. For example, looking at media development, one of the things that the field of cellular agriculture has forgotten about, or maybe hasn’t fully acknowledge is this idea of basic quality control. So yes, you can generate media, but how do you make sure you need to really have a robust pipeline that will guarantee you that your end product will be reproducible and will work every time. It’s a massive cost because you have a lot of people looking at things you have to implement the sort of pipeline that takes a lot of work. And it’s also just alongside those lines is the research and development that has to go into developing all those media and the formulations that would be in the case of cellular agriculture required to grow this meat in bioreactors or whatever. I think that this idea of quality control I think is going to play a massive role. And I feel like it’s something that’s not being acknowledged. Often the cost of reagents is not, it’s significant, yes, but the cost of making sure that these reagents or these formulations that you’re developing these products that you’re developing will be excellent every time it will meet the expectations of consumers, every time is a very expensive endeavor.

Alex (28:27):

It’s interesting to look at the process in an official way. I wanted to track back to just the cell cultured meat industry in general, we’ve seen major milestones within the industry. And based off of your experience, can you envision that in the future, we will be going to a world where we’re just consuming plant-based meat and cell-based meat versus traditional animal agriculture?

Santiago (28:51):

Absolutely. Absolutely. I remember we went out for brunch with my partner the other day, and I’m not much of a mediator myself, but one of the things I love is bacon. It’s just, there’s something about it. I don’t even like pork, but bacon, I almost see it as different kind of animal. It’s just so good, but I also feel guilty eating it. Right. I faced that dilemma and that reminded me why I care so much about the field. Now I encounter, especially amongst academics, a lot of naysayers that say that this will never happen. The engineering doesn’t make sense. And I think my answer is always, I don’t know if it’s going to be plant-based, cell-based or both, but one thing that I am certain of is that something needs to change with the way we produce meat, because it’s clearly not sustainable. And we know that, we know it’s not sustainable, so something needs to change. Something has to give and what’s it going to be? I’m not sure, but I’m certain, I’m certain that something has to change.

Alex (29:45):

If we were to step into your bench space, when you were back at Ottawa, what would we see? What kind of equipment would be nearby? What are some of the experiments that you might’ve been running, maybe even, what are some of your colleagues doing?

Santiago (30:01):

When I worked on the trout cells, which was like I said, towards the end of my Masters, one of the things that I needed, and once again, this also circles back to the tilapia thing, I needed an incubator. So I needed an incubator that was set at 18 degrees Celsius. So just a little under room temperature. And the problem once again is that we had a bunch of incubators, but they were all set to 37 degrees Celsius, so body temperature. But at this point I think I was empowered to say, well, all my friends, a lot of my colleagues are biologists, which is learn how to code, learn how to make instruments. I was like, Oh, at that point I already had some knowledge. And I was like, I think I can make this. So at that point I remember building what I call the troutcubator.

Santiago (30:41):

So originally it came out as this basically a styrofoam box that had a thermometer, a very simple circuit and a fan and a shell. Those basically, I think originally it was another piece of styrofoam that I found lying around. So it was basically an incubator made it of junk. It was styrofoam pieces, styrofoam box that we got, when we order the media, then it was a fan that came from a computer and we bought distant thermometer microcontroller from Amazon for, I think it was like $8. So I think in total it costs about 10 to build it. And that’s what I would use to then grow my trout cells. So I think if you look back on my bench, then hopefully my troutcubator is still kicking around somewhere.

Alex (31:22):

I love it. And maybe not the best question to follow up with, not to say that you’ll start a company creating troutcubators, but have you thought about starting your own company?

Santiago (31:33):

Definitely. I think right now, I’m just waiting for the right time. One of the things that I think I’m trying to better understand how established companies do it, right? What can I learn from here and what can he bring to my own company? I feel like right now also, the field is driven a bit too much by hype. And I think we need to be careful with that. And I think it’s also in part driven by who’s the loudest person in the room. I feel like I don’t really thrive in that environment. And I think we need to be careful as well to, I guess, acknowledge the importance of scientific rigor and not get caught out by this hype. I feel like this is a very complex project, a very complex objective. And so I think for now standing back and trying to acquire the skills I need to then go in and I don’t want to say, do things my way, but I do things where I think have the scientific rigor first and hopefully can have an impact on things, but it would be, I think mostly just driven by, by the passion that I have for the field, the passion that I have for the animals and the environment.

Alex (32:37):

You can get in touch with Santiago on and learn more about the research projects of New Harvest at www.new-harvest.org. Santiago, do you have any last insights for our listeners today?

Santiago (32:50):

I would say, I think if you’re passionate about it, I would encourage you wherever you are to just seek, you know, if you’re, if you’re an undergrad looking for a mentor, looking for a professor, you only need one yes. But that was always my mentality. I only need to hear one yes. I can hear all the no’s in the world. I only need one yes. I encourage you to just stay on the lookout. It’s going to be challenging. I’m sure a lot of professors are going to say no, but I encourage you to just look and search for that opportunity that will get your foot in the door. And I think it may be just a word of encouragement for any sort of managers and professors just, I think it’s very important. And I think I’ve learned the value of carving out a space where people to just ask unconventional questions and just be driven by their own vision and their own passion. I think I’ve always been a believer that you can teach people skills or you can not teach them to care. And I think it’s very important to just maybe carve out a space where people can be driven by their passions, no matter how sometimes weird they sound. And then just as importance of play and failure and that the role that it has in research.

Alex (33:52):

Santiago, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your insights on the Future Food Show.

Santiago (33:57):

Thank you very much for having me, Alex.

Alex (33:59):

This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to being with you on our next episode.


Transcribed by New Harvest volunteer Bianca Le. 

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