Photo illustration of store-bought meat in petri dishes

Kelly Schultz, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, leads a team composed of three other researchers that is trying to grow meat. (The above illustration is of store-bought meat, not lab-cultivated meat.)

Cultivating Lab-grown Meat

Kelly Schultz leads a team of researchers in a project considered key to future sustainability.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Feeding a hungry world is a daunting challenge. The world population has grown sevenfold since 1800—to a whopping 8 billion-plus people and rising—and resources are being gobbled up at an alarming rate to support that growth.

One part of the solution could come from interdisciplinary research led by Kelly Schultz, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Schultz leads a team composed of three other researchers—Mark Snyder and Angela Brown, associate professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Steven McIntosh, professor, Zisman family chair and department chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering—that is collaborating on a project widely considered to be a key to future sustainability.

They’re trying to grow meat, literally.

To be clear, this is not about plantbased products that mimic the taste and texture of real meat, such as the popular Impossible Burger, although such products are considered a part of the sustainability solution. This is about real meat, created from the tissue of animals. This is about meat cultivated from live cells, meat packed with natural protein that does not require breeding or slaughtering animals.

While the first reaction many people have to the idea of growing meat is a negative one, Schultz counters that it is not strange at all.

“In the end, it is a piece of meat grown out of an animal’s living cells. It’s just grown a different way than we’re used to,” she explains.

You’ve seen the $300,000 hamburger. And what that is is meat. But it’s mushy and it is not well organized.

Kelly Schultz

The concept is not new. Scientists have been experimenting with growing meat in a lab for more than a decade. Projects are diverse, with some backed by billionaire entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, movie stars such as Ashton Kutcher and even big meat companies such as Tyson Foods.

It was big news in 2013, when a lab in the Netherlands unveiled its $330,000 hamburger—a reference to the large donation from Google co-founder and entrepreneur Sergey Brin to the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, where professor Mark Post’s team produced a palatable patty cultivated from animal cells. Post went on to found Mosa Meat, which is scaling up production and scaling down the cost in anticipation of seeking approval to sell its burgers.

One company—Good Meat—has gone commercial, with cell-cultivated chicken sold in Singapore. And in November 2022, UPSIDE Foods in San Francisco received a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grow its meat, a first in this country.

Schultz says while the industry has come a long way in a short time, creating meat just as tasty as farmed meat for the same cost is an ongoing challenge. A major problem is creating the proper texture for whole cuts of meat—like a steak or a chicken breast.

“You’ve seen the $300,000 hamburger. And what that is is meat. But it’s mushy and it is not well organized,” Schultz says. “You can also grow a small piece of meat, a 2D piece of meat, but you are limited. 3D is something tissue engineers have been working on in humans for quite some time.”

Four Lehigh professors' headshots

From left, Kelly Shultz, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Steven McIntosh, professor, Zisman family chair and department chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Angela Brown, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; and Mark Snyder, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Schultz knows a lot about tissue engineering. Her expertise in the area of rheology—the study of the flow of fluids—contributes to the creation of hydrogel materials for biological applications such as wound healing, drug delivery and tissue regeneration.

Schultz says the leap from generating human tissue to animal tissue is not a big one.

“The idea for growing meat was inspired by this and just uses a different cell. At the moment in humans, we have been mimicking adipose tissue, which is not structured or exercised and will be implanted so it does not need the oxygen and nutrients. It was a jumping-off point, but the meat project has many more dimensions due to the highly collaborative nature of it.”

In 2021, Schultz received a $250,000 research grant from the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank and international network of organizations working to accelerate alternative protein innovation. The two-year grant is seed money, says Schultz, who hopes the research continues beyond that.

Why Cultivated Meat is Important

Meat is a good source of energy and essential nutrients, including protein and iron, zinc and vitamin B12. The world is full of meat lovers—the global per capita consumption of meat continues to rise, more so in affluent countries.

But meat production is extremely damaging to the environment in many ways. By some estimates, meat production already requires more than half of the world’s estimated agricultural capacity. Meat production is responsible for 57 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, leading to climate change, according to a study published in Nature Food.

A quarter of the planet’s ice-free land is used to graze animals used for meat, and a third of all cropland is used to grow food for them, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

Converting land to agricultural fields leads to species extinction because of the destruction of natural habitat, experts agree. Growing feed requires vast amounts of water and results in chemical contamination of land. In addition, manure decomposition releases harmful emissions, including methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide.

The hope is that lab-grown meat production would be more energy-efficient and result in lower gas emissions. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said cultivated meat would be “transformative” in mitigating emissions.

Asked why the answer to the problem isn’t “just stop eating meat,” Schultz says the consumption of meat is too culturally ingrained. People will always want to eat meat. And for those who might be socio-economically disadvantaged, meat is an important source of nutrition. Cell-grown meat also could be an alternative for those who don’t eat meat because they consider it cruel to animals.

The Cultivated Meat Race

According to the Good Food Institute, more than 100 startups globally are focused on developing cultivated meat products while 64 companies have announced a business line in cultivated meat. Consultants McKinsey and Co. say the global market for cultivated meat could reach $25 billion by 2030.

Producers of lab-grown meat got a lot of attention at the 2022 United National Climate Change Conference, COP27. Mosa Meat CEO Maarten Bosch spoke on a panel with other alternative protein leaders, policymakers and investors. Good Meat held dining events to show off its newest version of cultivated chicken.

Petri dishes

Much remains to be discovered. At a 2021 conference presented by the Good Food Institute, speakers said that higher-density cell cultures and significant cost reductions in recombinant protein and growth factor production were needed for cultivated meat to be commercially viable at scale.

Enter Schultz and team.

Schultz had been reading about cultivated meat and thought her rheology work would combine well with the expertise of Snyder, Brown and McIntosh in antibiotic resistance, biomaterials, scaffold microstructures and energy.

“We knew we had complementary skills. ... It became quite obvious we had a really unique perspective on how to solve one of the issues they are having in that industry,” says Schultz.

Cultured meat starts with a handful of cells taken from an animal through a biopsy. The idea is to grow muscle tissue by nurturing the cells with a nutrient broth on a scaffold in a bioreactor.

Schultz says existing processes are expensive, partly because of the need for chemical cues for cell differentiation and growth. The team’s goal is to provide a scalable alternative that overcomes key barriers facing cultivated meat production, including nutrient delivery to cells and waste removal.

“Our approach uses hydrogels as scaffolds to grow the animal muscle tissue. Animal muscle satellite cells will be encapsulated in these materials in 3D,” says Schultz. “This scaffold has hierarchical structure and is a collaboration between myself and Mark Snyder. This should force cells to organize into fibers like they are in muscle.

This scaffold has hierarchical structure and is a collaboration between myself and Mark Snyder. This should force cells to organize into fibers like they are in muscle.

Kelly Schultz

“We are also using vesicles within the scaffold to deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells as the meat grows. This is done by Angela Brown. This allows oxygen and nutrients, which are essential for these cells to remain viable, to be delivered in the piece of muscle as the meat grows. This is usually an issue—that as the piece of meat gets bigger, the cells on the inside will die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients.

“Then Steve McIntosh is using electrochemical strategies to ‘exercise’ the meat, which will also enable the development of the fibrous structure. Growing with a structure that mimics native muscle will give the correct bite and feel of the meat, so it is not just a squishy texture like ground meat.”

The lab is currently working with cells from pigs and chickens because they were able to find a reliable source, Schultz says.

The Future

The multimillion-dollar question is how many people will be willing to eat meat that’s grown in a lab.

The answer is surprisingly high. Forty percent of U.S. consumers say they would eat cultured meat, and 60% of vegans are willing to try it, according to new research from Surveygoo commissioned by Ingredient Communications.

Those numbers might increase if the cost is comparable and the taste the same as what consumers are used to.

“Young people don’t care that their meat is made in a giant stainless steel vessel,” said ABEC CEO Scott Pickering in an article in ABEC is a California biotech equipment company partnering with Good Meat to design, manufacture and install the largest known bioreactors for avian and mammalian cell culture.

The ultimate goal, scientists and thought leaders say, is to complement the $14 trillion meat industry, not replace it.

Schultz says she eats meat, but is tuned in to the environmental impact of meat production and tries to buy locally and organically.

“In the end, this all came out of scientific curiosity,” says Schultz. “All of us work in some way to better humanity.”

Story by Jodi Duckett

Photography by

Christa Neu

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