Ever wonder why you've never heard of wild-caught organic fish? It's because there's no way to certify a food that has a mysterious history. Mike Selden, a 26-year-old biochemist with an animal lover's heart and an entrepreneur's mind, decided there must be better way to consume one of our planet's primary sources of animal protein. A way that would eliminate the need to kill billions of fish per year while also producing toxin-free, cheap, delicious fish meat for your dinner table. Enter Finless Foods, a young startup with a bold vision. Selden took time out of chauffeuring fish carcasses around San Francisco (no joke!) to share his journey with LeapsMag.
What is the biggest problem with the way fish is consumed today?
There are a lot of problems ranging from metals to animal welfare to human health. Technology is solving those problems at the same time. You've got extreme over fishing, which is collapsing ocean ecosystems and removing populations of fish that are traditionally used as food sources in developing nations.
In terms of animal welfare, fish are killed in massive numbers, billions a year. Even if people don't care too much about that, we want to give them another option.
In terms of health, which I think for most people is the most convincing argument, current fish have mercury and plastic in them. And if you're getting that fish from a farm, you will also have high levels of antibiotics and growth hormones if you're getting it from outside the U.S. What we're doing is producing fish that doesn't have any of those contaminants.
What gave you the idea to start a company around lab-grown fish?
I studied biochemistry and molecular biology at UMass Amherst, traditionally an agricultural school out in the woods of Massachusetts. I have always been an environmental activist and cared about animals. I thought, animal agriculture is so incredibly inefficient, what could be done to change it?
"The worst way you can possibly make a hamburger is with a cow."
Agriculture is a system of inputs and outputs, the inputs being feed and the outputs being meat – so why are we wasting all of this input on outputs we don't care about? Why are we creating these animals that waste all this energy through sitting around, moving around, having a heartbeat, blinking? All of this uses energy and that's valuable input.
The worst way you can possibly make a hamburger is with a cow. It's an awful transfer of energy: you have to feed it many times its own weight in food that could have fed other people or other things.
In February, I got funding from Indie Bio, a startup accelerator for synthetic biology, and moved out to San Francisco with my co-founder Brian Wyrwas. We started working in our lab in March. We're the newest company in the space.
Walk me through the process of creating edible fish in the lab. Do you have to catch a real live fish first and get their cells?
We have a deal with the Aquarium of the Bay, and whenever a fish dies, they call me, I get in a zip car, drive over, and bring the fish back to the lab, where Brian cultures it up into a cell culture. We do use real, high-quality fish stock. From there, we get the cells going in a bioreactor in a suspension culture, grow them into large quantities, and then bring them out to differentiate them into the cells people want to eat—the muscle and fat tissue. Then we formulate it and bring it to people's tables.
How long does the whole process take from the phone call about the fish dying to the food on the table?
There are two different processes: One is a research process, getting the initial cells and engineering them to be what we're looking for.
The other is a production process – we have a cell line ready and need to grow it out. That timing depends on how big of a facility we have. Since we're working with cell division: If you have 1 cell, in 24 hours, you'll have two cells. Let's say you have 1 ton of cells, in 24 hours you'll have two tons of cells.
"We want to give people the wholesome food they are used to in a healthier setting."
How are you looking to scale this process?
We're trying to find a middle ground between efficiency and local distribution. Organic farming is hilariously bad for the environment and horrifyingly inefficient, but on the other hand, industrial agriculture requires lots of transport, which is also bad for the environment. We're looking to create regionally distributed facilities which don't require a lot of transit, so people can have fresh fish even extremely far inland.
What kinds of fish are you "cooking"?
Our first product will be Bluefin tuna. It's a high-quality fish with high demand and it's also a conservation issue. We also currently have a culture going with Branzino, European sea bass, that we're really happy with.
There's a concept in science called a model organism – one that is extremely well studied and understood. Like the fruit fly, for example. For fish, it's the zebra fish, which is used for genetic research, but no one eats it. It's tiny, so we started by thinking: what fish do people eat that is also close evolutionarily to the zebra fish? We came up with carp, even though it's not too widely eaten.
But our process is very species agnostic. We've done work in trout, salmon, goldfish. Any fish with a dorsal fin works with our process. We tried a wolf eel but it didn't work. Eels are pretty far evolutionarily from fish, so we dropped that one.
From left to right, Ron Shigeta (IndieBio), Brian Wyrwas (Finless Foods), Amy Fleming (The Guardian), and Jihyun Kim (Finless Foods) tasting the first ever clean carp croquettes.
(Courtesy Mike Selden)
Why fish as opposed to, say, a cow?
Scientifically, there are a lot of advantages. Fish have a simpler structure than land animals. A fillet from a cow has complex marbling going on between the fat and muscle. When it's fish, like sashimi, it's in layers of muscle and fat. So it's simpler to build, plus fish are cold-blooded, so because they breathe underwater, our equipment needs less complexity. We don't need a CO2 line and we don't need to culture our cells at 37 degrees Celsius. We culture them at room temperature.
It's also easier to get to market since there's much higher value. Chicken in the last year was $3.84 per pound in America, whereas Bluefin tuna is between $100 and $1200 a pound. Because this is about dropping cost, we can get to market faster and give investors a better value proposition.
What's also cool is that something like Bluefin tuna is something many people haven't had the opportunity to eat. We can get these down in cost until there is price parity with any cheap conventional fish. We want to give people a choice between buying something like albacore tuna in a can –with mercury and plastic– or high-quality tuna without any contaminants for the same price.
Do you shape them like fish fillets to help the consumer overcome whatever discomfort they might feel about eating a bunch of lab-grown cells?
Yeah, people want to continue eating food they are eating, and that's fine. We want to give people a better option. We don't want to give them something weird and out there. We want to give them the wholesome food they are used to in a healthier setting that also solves some environmental issues.
How about the taste? Have you done any blind side-by-side tests with the real thing and your version?
Not blind taste tests. But we have been tasting it, and it is firmly fish. I even tried leaving it outside of the fridge – and man, that tasted like spoiled fish.
We want it to have the exact same properties as real fish. We don't want people to have to learn how to cook with it. We want them to just bring it into their homes and eat it exactly like they were doing before, but better.
What you're growing isn't the whole fish, right? It is not an actual organism?
Right, we're only growing muscle cells. It doesn't know where it is. There is no brain, nervous system, or pain receptors.
Are you the only people in this lab-grown food space working on fish?
We're the only ones doing fish so far. Other companies are doing chicken, duck, egg white, milk, gelatin, leather, and beef.
Are people generally weirded out by sci-fi lab food, or intrigued?
It's been very positive. When people sit down and talk to us, they realize it's not some crazed money grab or some weird Ted talk, it's real activists using real science trying to solve real problems. Sure, there will be some pushback from people who don't understand it, and that's fine.
When can I expect to see Finless Food at my local Whole Foods?
We plan on being in restaurants in two years, and grocery stores in four years.
What about people who aren't big fans of fish in the first place? Like those who don't eat sushi, because consuming something raw with an unknown history isn't very appetizing.
There are too many examples of food poisoning because fish are in a less clean environment than they should be, swimming around in their own fecal matter, and being doused in antibiotics so their diseases don't transmit. It's a bit of a mess. That's why as an industry, we're calling this clean meat. Fish is a healthy thing, or at least it should be, with Omega 3 and 6, and DHA. This is a way for people to continue getting those nutrients without any of the questions of where it came from. For people who are skeptical of fish, we invite you to dive in.
Brian Wyrwas, Co-Founder & CSO, and Mike Selden, Co-Founder & CEO
(Courtesy Mike Selden)
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."