A startup is developing an algae-based substitute for the world's most-consumed seafood.

By Food & Wine Editors
Updated May 24, 2017
Christina Holmes

There's progress in the world of lab-grown meat. In 2013, the world's firstin vitro burger cost a third of a billion dollars, and now scientists say they can make one for just nine bucks. Other tissue engineers have turned their attention to meatballs. But are researchers working with the same fervor on in vitro seafood? Our oceans are rapidly losing their once-great populations of species like bluefin tuna, and indistinguishable alternatives could allow stocks to replenish without compromising omakase experiences. The answer, Gizmodo reports, is not exactly. The piece then relates a story that's equally promising, fascinating and nauseating:

"In 2002, Morris Benjaminson, a professor emeritus at Touru University, received a small grant from NASA to explore the possibility of lab-grown meat, with the idea that future astronauts might use the technology to enjoy steak nights in space. In a rather grisly experiment, Benjaminson and his colleagues excised chunks of goldfish muscle from live fish and dunked them in vats of fetal bovine serum, a nutrient-rich cocktail brewed from the blood of unborn calves. After about a week, the severed fish chunks had grown in size by 14 percent and resembled small filets."

Benjaminson found the results encouraging ("You can get a lot of goldfish for the cost of a cow,” he told Gizmodo), but NASA never followed up. Years later, one of Silicon Valley's hottest food startups is New Wave Foods, which is using algae to create a shrimp substitute. Cultured meat, it isn't (and as any vegetarian can tell you, faux shrimp has been around forever in some meat-free Chinese restaurants), but it could solve environmental problems. New Wave wants to keep its prices low, which suggests it could compete with unsustainably farmed shrimp.

But Benjaminson's artificially-enlarged fillets won't be going into production any time soon, and that might be just as well. While lab-grown meat is often touted in headlines as an environmental and ethical savior, that's not the view of Oron Catts, an artist and engineer who once successfully produced a small amount of frog tissue: “Many say that in vitro meat is a way to solve resource problems,” he told Gizmodo. “I find that to be problematic. I think it makes a lot more sense to say this could be a luxury good, one that develops along with molecular gastronomy.”