Longhorn Scientists Are on a Quest to Grow the Ultimate Texan Delicacy in a Laboratory

Texas is home to 13 million cattle that are raised on thousands of ranches to feed America’s insatiable appetite for burgers, steaks, and ribs. But no one makes beef quite like Janet Zoldan. As the co-founder and chief science officer of the Austin-based startup BioBQ, Zoldan has spent the past three years on a quest to grow brisket in a lab. It’s a novel idea in the budding industry of “lab-grown” meats and is fraught with technological challenges. But if Zoldan and her collaborators at BioBQ are successful, their innovative approach to beef production could significantly reduce the environmental impact of cattle ranching while improving animal welfare and boosting human health.   

Zoldan is an unlikely cattle farmer. As an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UT Austin, her research lab focuses on engineering cardiovascular tissues—heart muscle, blood vessels, and the like—that are grown from stem cells and can be used to repair human hearts. When she was approached by Katie Kam, PhD ’12, a passionate advocate for animal welfare who had recently started a company to commercially produce cultivated meat, she saw an opportunity to apply her expertise in tissue engineering toward a very different goal.   

“Making meat is also tissue engineering—it’s just engineering a different muscle from a different species,” Zoldan says. “So, I thought we could use the technology that we developed for cardiac tissue engineering, but this time for beef.”   

In 2019, Zoldan joined BioBQ to pursue beef cultivation at a commercial scale. While BioBQ is hardly the only company working to commercialize cultivated meats—the first lab-grown hamburger was produced in 2013—the company’s vision is a league apart from others in the industry. While most cultivated meat producers have focused on making ground meat products—think hamburgers and chicken nuggets—Kam initially wanted to focus on growing brisket, a far more challenging proposition.    

Brisket is a cut of beef taken from the lower chest of a cow and requires unique methods to prepare the meat due to the large number of connective fibers known as collagen that weave the fat and muscle together. Brisket is a staple of Texas barbecue, but the presence of multiple kinds of tissue that are naturally arranged in a highly structured cell matrix makes it a tough target for cultivation. Unlike cultivated ground beef, where tissue cells can randomly connect as they grow, replicating the texture of brisket requires cells to align with each other in an orderly manner. Moreover, whereas cultivated ground beef uses only a single kind of tissue, growing brisket requires connecting layers of both fat and muscle tissues.   

The technical challenges associated with cultivating brisket are why no one else has tried to produce it commercially yet. But this is where Zoldan’s expertise in engineering heart tissues gives BioBQ a decisive advantage. Like brisket, the heart is composed of many different kinds of highly structured tissue. Thus, by adopting the techniques used in her research on cardiovascular engineering, Zoldan and Kam have been able to achieve what few in the cultivated meat industry would have thought possible.   

To make it happen, BioBQ has partnered with a local veterinarian in Austin who has a small herd of cattle. This vet supplies BioBQ with a biopsy— 
a small piece of tissue taken from the brisket region of a single cow—and these bovine cells are then placed in a bioreactor and cultivated on a “thermosensitive” scaffold that Zoldan developed at her UT lab. This scaffold directs the cells to align in the right way, and once the cells have grown, Zoldan raises the temperature in the bioreactor to dissolve the scaffold, leaving only the cultivated beef tissue behind.   

It’s an elegant technique, but if BioBQ’s cultivated brisket is ever going to find a place on Texans’ dinner tables, it’s going to have to taste good, too. Kam is a vegan, and while she has no qualms about eating cultivated meat since it doesn’t require slaughtering animals, she hasn’t eaten brisket—or any other meats—in more than 20 years, which makes it difficult for her to compare the lab-grown version with the real thing. As such, Zoldan has become BioBQ’s resident taste tester and earlier this year, she was able to sample her creation for the first time.   

“I literally took it from the petri dish, put it on a plate, added all kinds of spices, and then fried it on a pan in my kitchen,” Zoldan says. Normally, brisket requires a long tenderization process to break down the collagen in the meat, but because the cultivated version didn’t have any collagen, she was able to pan fry it in just a few minutes. How about the taste? “It was a bit slimy taking it out of the petri dish, so I expected it to also taste slimy, but it wasn’t,” Zoldan says. “I didn’t expect it to be so close to a meat taste.”   

For now, Zoldan is the only one who has tried BioBQ’s cultivated brisket, but that will change as soon as the company receives FDA approval to sell it commercially. She hopes that they will receive approval sometime in 2023, but the process can take nine months or longer because regulators don’t yet have robust systems in place for evaluating the safety of this novel type of meat. In the meantime, Zoldan says, there are plenty of technical challenges for BioBQ to sort out. Chief among them is setting up the processes to scale the production of cultivated brisket so the company can take it from a lab bench and into restaurants.   

Zoldan doesn’t think that cultivated brisket will ever entirely replace the “real” thing, but she is confident that BioBQ’s products will find a large and dedicated audience. For vegans like Kam who are concerned about animal welfare, cultivated brisket is a way to partake in a Texas culinary tradition without the ethical dilemma. At the same time, cultivated brisket can also put a dent in the environmental impact of cattle ranching, which produces a tremendous amount of carbon emissions and requires significant amounts of water. Finally, as BioBQ hones its cultivation techniques, Zoldan sees an opportunity to create meats that are tailored for individual health, such as low cholesterol or iron-rich brisket.   

“The response we’re getting from people is so positive, and they’re overwhelmingly excited to try it,” Zoldan says. “I think we need innovative ways to solve these problems, and eventually I think we’ll get there.”   

CREDIT: Tara Jocoby


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