Imagine it's 2050. You wake up and make breakfast: fluffy scrambled eggs that didn't come from a chicken, but that taste identical to the ones you remember eating as a kid. You would never know that the egg protein on your plate, ovalbumin, was developed in an industrial bioreactor using fungi.
"We have this freedom to operate, freedom to engineer way beyond what we have now with livestock or plants."
For lunch, you head to your kitchen's 3D printer and pop in a cartridge, select your preferred texture and flavor, then stand back while your meal is chemically assembled. Afterward, for dessert, you snack on some chocolate that tastes more delicious than the truffles of the past. That's because these cocoa beans were gene-edited to improve their flavor.
2050 is not a random year –it's when the United Nations estimates that the world population will have ballooned to nearly 10 billion people. That's a staggering number of mouths to feed. So, scientists are already working on ways to make new food products that are unlike anything we consume today, but that could offer new, potentially improved nutritional choices and sustainable options for the masses. To whet your appetite, here are three futuristic types of food that are currently in development around the world:
1) Cellular Agriculture
Researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, a leading R&D organization in Europe, are on the cutting-edge of developing a whole new ecosystem of food with novel ingredients and novel functionality.
In the high-tech world of cellular agriculture, single-cell organisms can be used in contained environments to produce food ingredients that are identical to traditionally sourced ingredients. For example, whey protein can be developed inside a bioreactor that is functionally the same as the kind in cow's milk.
Ditto for eggs without a chicken – so the world will finally know which came first.
The steel tank bioreactors in VTT´s piloting facility are used to grow larger amounts of plant cells or to brew dairy and egg proteins with microbes.
"We take the gene from a chicken genome, and place that in a microbe, and then the microbe can, with those instructions, make exactly the same protein," explains Lauri Reuter, a Senior Specialist at VTT who holds a doctorate in biotechnology. "It will swim in this bioreactor and kick out the protein, and we get this liquid that can be purified. Then you would cook or bake with it, and the food you would eat tastes and looks like food you would eat right now."
But why settle for what chickens can do? With this technology, it's possible, for example, to modify the ovalbumin protein to decrease its allergenicity.
"This is the power of what we can do with modern tools of genetic engineering," says Christopher Landowski,a Research Team Leader of the Protein Production Team. And the innovative potential doesn't stop there.
"We have this freedom to operate, freedom to engineer way beyond what we have now with livestock or plants," Reuter says. Future foods sourced from cells could include meat analogues, sugar substitutes, dairy substitutes, nutritious veggies that don't taste bitter, personalized nutrition – ingredients designed for individual needs; the list goes on. It could even be used one day to produce food on Mars.
The researchers emphasize the advantages of this method: their living cell factories are efficient – no care of complex animals is required; they can scale up or down in reaction to demand; their environments are contained and don't require antibiotics; and they provide an alternative to using animals.
But the researchers also readily admit that the biggest obstacle is consumer acceptance, which is why they seek to engage with people along the way to alleviate any concerns and to educate them about the technology. Novel foods of this sort have already been eaten in research settings, but it may take another three to five years before the egg and milk proteins hit the market, probably first in the United States before Europe.
Eventually, the researchers anticipate widespread adoption.
Emilia Nordlund, who directs the Food Solutions team, predicts, "Cellular agriculture will revolutionize the food industry as dramatically as the Internet revolutionized many other industries."
Jams made of culture cells of various plants: strawberry, scurvy grass, arctic bramble, tobacco, cloudberry and lingonberry.
2) 3D-printed foods
In South Korea, researchers are developing 3D-printed foods to help solve a problem caused by aging. Elderly people often rely on soft foods which are easier to chew, but aren't always healthy, like Jello and pudding.
With 3D printing, foods of softer textures can be created with the same nutritional value as firmer food, via a processing method that breaks down the food into tiny nutrients by grinding it at a very low temperature with liquid nitrogen.
"The goal is that someone at home can print out food with whatever flavor and texture they want."
The micro-sized food materials are then reconstructed in layers to form what looks like a Lego block. "The cartridges are all textures, some soft and some stiff," explains Jin-Kyu Rhee, associate professor at Ewha Womans University, whose project has been funded for the last three years by the South Korean government. "We are developing a library of food textures, so that people can combine them to simulate a real type of food."
Users could then add powdered versions of various ingredients to create customized food. Flavor, of course, is of prime importance too, so the cartridges have flavors like barbecue to help simulate the experience of eating "real" food.
"The goal is that someone at home can print out food with whatever flavor and texture they want," Rhee says. "They can order their own cartridge and digital recipes to generate their own food, ready to cook with a microwave oven." It could also be used for space travel.
Rhee expects the prototype of the printer to be completed by the end of this year and will then seek out a commercial partner. If all goes well, you might be able to set up your 3D printer next to your coffee pot by 2025.
3) CRISPR-edited foods
You may not know that the cocoa plant is having a tough time out there in nature. It's plagued by fungal disease; on farms, about 30 to 40 percent of the potential cocoa beans are lost every year. For all the chocolate lovers of the world, this means less to go around.
Conventional plant breeding is very slow for trees, so researchers like Mark Guiltinan at Penn State University are devising ways to increase the plants' chances for survival – without moving any genes between species, as in genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"Because society hasn't really embraced [GMOs] very much, we're trying to develop ways that don't use transgenic plants and speed up breeding," Guiltinan says.
He and his colleagues are using CRISPR-cas9, the precise method of editing DNA, to imbue cocoa plants with immunity to fungal disease.
How does it work? Similar to humans, the plants have an immune system. Part of it functions like brakes, repressing the whole system so it's only working when it needs to.
"Like when you get a fever, your immune system is working full blast, but your body shuts it down when it doesn't need it," he explains. "Plants do exactly the same thing. One idea is if we can reduce or eliminate that brake on the immune system, we could make plants that have a very high immunity."
A CRISPR-edited npr3 mutant cacao plantlet, not too much to see yet, but soon it will become a happy plant in the greenhouse.
(Photo credit: Mark Guiltinan)
The CRISPR-cas9 system allows "a really amazing little protein" to go into the cocoa plant cell, find a specific gene, and shut it off to put the whole immune system into overdrive. This confers the necessary immunity, and though the plant burns through a lot of energy, as if it has a fever all the time, this method would allow for more plants to fend off the fungal attacks every year. Which means more chocolate. It could also greatly reduce the need for pesticides.
"Replacing chemicals with genetics is one part of our goal," Guiltinan says. "And it's totally safe." Another goal of his project is to improve the cocoa beans' quality and flavor profile through gene editing.
Yum. Is your mouth watering yet?
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."