Can scientists build a blueprint for bluefin tuna?
For several years, biotech companies have been promising "clean" meat, "cell-based" meat, "cultured" meat - whatever you want to call it - as a way to enjoy the taste of chicken, pork and beef without the brutality of animal slaughter or the environmental damage of big agriculture.
But what about fish? What about something as prized as buttery bluefin tuna, a delicacy that has become the forbidden fruit of the sea because of the many threats that have landed the fish on threatened and endangered species lists?
Brian Wyrwas is the co-founder and chief science officer for Finless Foods, a Bay Area biotech dedicated to growing bluefin tuna in a lab.
Unlike scientists who grow chicken or cow cells in a lab, Wyrwas can't exactly biopsy a living animal for tissue, given that bluefin tuna travel the world's oceans at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour. Nor can he grab a sample from one of the precious few bluefin tuna farms, which would view him as competition. Nor can he walk into a fish processing plant and request a sample. Bluefin tuna die on ship, many miles from shore, their cells slowly decomposing even when frozen or on ice.
To get an uncontaminated sample, Wyrwas has to head out to sea. Through countless hours sitting on boats, fighting the elements and his sterile equipment to secure a quality sample that could, hopefully, provide healthy stem cells.
Even once he succeeded, Wyrwas and the Finless team had to learn how to culture, or grow, bluefin tuna cells without the actual animal. Without the fish's natural habitat. And without the fish's standard diet of squid, mackerel, herring and more. The scientists had few blueprints to follow.
But if they can figure out the science from beginning to end and, perhaps more important , figure out how to scale up the process into a viable commercial venture, the folks at Finless Foods hint at an almost utopian reversal of fortunes for humans, fish and the environment.
So, has Finless Foods figured it out?
Yes, in part.
The challenge ahead: to produce the fish in large quantities - and in a form that sushi lovers would recognize.
In the San Francisco Bay, where Finless Foods has its offices, the seven-person team has yet to determine the exact food media mix necessary to give their bluefin tuna the proper flavour , ruby-red colour and healthful omega-3 fatty acids that consumers desire. But they have figured out how to grow three kinds of tissues from bluefin stem cells: Muscle, fat and connective tissue.
Last year, Finless hosted a tasting of its first fish prototype, a cultured carp paste, which a local chef mixed with potato into a croquette.