Home bioreactors, the future of growing food

In the dead of winter, fresh fruit can be expensive, with soft fruits like berries coming to the United States from Central and South America—sometimes even being flown in. But what if you could grow your own fruit right at home, getting the health benefits of impossible-to-cultivate berries or out-of-season favorites without having to eat pricy imported produce or take supplements?

That’s the question that drove Lauri Reuter and his colleagues at the state-run tech company VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to start working on a project that totally reimagines how we think of growing food. His team is working on what they’re calling a “home bioreactor”—a countertop appliance that can, in theory, fill the same space in your life as a Nespresso machine does for coffee, but with fresh berry cells, including some from plants that would be impossible to cultivate using traditional means because of their adaptations to life in hostile places like the Arctic.

The idea got started when Reuter started working in a VTT lab that cultivates plant cell lines for industrial use in things like cosmetics and medicine. The berry cells contain chemical compounds that lotion-makers and health professionals rely on: Finnish company Lumene relies on the beneficial properties of cultivated cloudberry cells for some of its skin products, and a common cancer drug, paclitaxel, is derived from the cells of the Pacific Yew. In this application, cell culture helps produce enough of the berry and leaf cells to supply the market.  When he found out his colleagues were working on lingonberry, strawberry and cloudberry cell cultures, he asked what they tasted like. After all, they’re effectively just the fruit of a plant, grown in a cell culture rather than on the vine or bush. His colleagues’ response? “We don’t know. You’re not supposed to eat anything in the lab,” Reuter says.

His question sparked a conversation about what it would be like to grow plant cell cultures that could be eaten in cell culture form—and eventually led him to taste the cells. Currently, plant cells are used as chemical “factories” for drugs, cosmetics and even some food flavoring and coloring. For example, cultured saffron has been used for both food flavor and color: the saffron-producing crocus can only be harvested for about a week each  year, mostly in Iran, and has low yield, making it the most expensive spice in the world, whereas cultured saffron can be produced all year round.  But in those applications, the chemicals are extracted from the plant cells. The idea of using them as-is had been discussed before in labs, Reuter says, “but there was always this assumption that the price would be too high, because we assumed that you would have to grow them in bioreactors in the lab.”

Reuter’s team had a new idea: what if plant cells could be grown for food by regular people working outside the lab? They started the project using some of the berry cell cultures from the lab, including the Arctic berries native to Finland.

After all, plant cells like the kind you find in the berries you eat require relatively little to grow: just minerals from the environment, water and sugar to replace what a traditional plant would make through photosynthesis. What they produce from these simple ingredients are a host of beneficial micronutrients that can be eaten in a delicious form: flavorful, brightly colored plant cells that have a texture sort of like pureed fruit, and can be added to foods like yogurt or smoothies. “We just kind of changed the way we thought about our cell cultures. We had been thinking about them as cell factories for pharmaceuticals,” Reuter says. “But all of a sudden we started to see them as foodstuffs.”

The team made waves when it released a prototype in late 2016 under the name CellPod. Their at-home bioreactor design is about the size of a table lamp and can produce about two cups of cell culture each week, in a self-contained plastic bag. Users insert the bag, which contains the cell starter, add water, and turn on the bioreactor. It will keep the culture at optimal conditions for growth. The cells can be added to smoothies, mixed into yogurt or eaten by themselves as supplements, Reuter says.

Click here to read the full article at Smithsonian Magazine.

Photo credit: Niko Räty

02/26/2018 - Smithsonian Magazine

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