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)
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.