Sunday, August 14, 2022

Top talent sought for lab-grown food research

Chair in cellular agriculture set up at Massey to study digestibility and other aspects of the new biotech.
AgResearch science group manager Stefan Clerens says the new chair is not geared to getting another burger on the market but about understanding the science behind the biotechnology. Photo: Supplied

Research into lab-grown food is getting a boost with the creation of a new professorship in cellular agriculture at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus. 

The position is to be jointly funded by Massey University and AgResearch.

Cellular agriculture is a disruptive technology that can create food components and products without animals, using animal cell cultures. The emerging field uses advances in biotechnology and will provide the means to eventually produce protein foods such as dairy or meat-like products in a laboratory, according to AgResearch science group manager Stefan Clerens.

The Riddet Institute is a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), hosted by Massey University, focusing on advanced food research, and AgResearch is a Crown Research Institute specialising in the pastoral and agri-technology sectors. 

The two entities share the state-of-the art research facility Te Ohu Rangahau Kai in Palmerston North, where the new position will be located.

Riddet Institute director Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh said the new joint role demonstrates the strength of the partnership between AgResearch, the Riddet Institute and Massey University. 

Clerens said the new professorship will use the specialties of the Riddet Institute and AgResearch to lead the way in this rapidly emerging area of food science.

“We are partners in the CoRE, and partners in the building, so it’s a natural other step to also partner in advanced science and capability building,” said Clerens.

Singh said the field of cellular agriculture is rapidly growing around the world. 

He said the Riddet Institute already has significant research activity in cellular agriculture but the new role will further build research and training capacity. 

“Biotechnologies for producing animal protein-based foods without animals have the potential to significantly disrupt the traditional animal protein industry.

“It is extremely important for New Zealand to develop future capability in cellular agriculture and exploit new commercial opportunities. This position will bring together key expertise and collaborations required to strengthen this research area for New Zealand.” 

Clerens said although there are several players in the market trying to produce lab-grown food alternatives, there is limited understanding of the nutritional repercussions of these products.

“We can put the science behind it. We can find out if it is fully digestible and understand the biochemistry and how it all comes together in a structure to deliver functionality for whatever the customer requires,” Clerens said. “We bring a difference. We don’t want to get another burger on the market; we want to focus on the processes and science behind the technology.”

Following the signing of the agreement between the two institutes, the chair been advertised globally.  Clerens said cellular agriculture is still a niche area and only a select few scientists around the world are qualified in the specialty. 

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