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A startup that turns mushrooms into IKEA packaging has introduced a new platform that could change the way lab-grown meat is made

A startup that turns mushrooms into IKEA packaging has introduced a new platform that could change the way lab-grown meat is made

  • Ecovative, a startup that made a name for itself with its sustainable packing and building materials made from mushrooms, is planning a pivot into lab-grown meat and other areas.
  • The company wants its mushroom scaffolding to be a central material for startups aiming to create everything from clothing to meat without slaughter.
  • The material could have uses for plant-based “meat” companies like the Bill Gates-backed bleeding veggie burger startup Impossible Foods, too.

A startup that makes environmentally-friendly packaging for IKEA is planning a big transition into the realms of lab-grown meat and beyond.

Ecovative – which made a name for itself by inking deals with brands like IKEA and Dell to swap styrofoam containers for packaging grown from fungi – now wants to use its mushroom-growing capabilities to become the backbone of several manufacturing efforts, including plans to make meat without slaughter.

It might sound like an odd pivot. But a critical obstacle for the “cell-based” (or “clean”) meat industry is taking the raw materials for meat – lab-grown cells from the fat and muscle tissues of chickens, pigs, and cows – and crafting them into materials that mimic the complex structure and texture of a marbled steak or sinewy chicken breast.

Several startups in the space claim to have succeeded in making prototype products that take the form of sausages, burgers, and meatballs. But these products involve essentially smashing together a mix of muscle and fat tissues – not creating actual pieces of flesh that mirror the real thing. What could be missing is a good scaffold, a delicate structure on which the cells can thrive.

Ecovative wants its mushroom technology to be that scaffold.

Using a new platform which the company is calling MycoFlex, Ecovative will be able to tailor a foam-like product it makes from mushroom roots (or mycelium) and craft it into a variety of end materials, from performance foams for clothing and shoes to cellular scaffolding for lab grown meat. In April, the company worked with licensee and fellow startup Bolt Threads to make the first MycoFlex-enabled product, a leather-like bag made with material it called Mylo.

Most recently, Ecovative has also been trialling growing animal cells on the MycoFlex platform.

“The key thing mycelium does is go from a single-celled organism to a 3D structure in space,” Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s co-founder and CEO, told Business Insider. “We’ve been growing animal cells on it and they’ve been growing really well.”

If it works, the partnership could help usher in the first slaughter-free products with the texture and structure of steaks and fillets.

The mushroom’s unique structure is hard to find elsewhere in the vegetarian-friendly organism kingdom. Plants can only do so much. But fungi knows no such boundaries.

wagyu steak


“If you look at plant scaffolding, you’re limited to the geometry of something like a spinach leaf,” Bayer said. “With mycelium, we can make a sheet that’s many feet long and however thick. We can control the density. It’s this massive scaffold you can grow relatively inexpensively.”

Ecovative’s mushroom-powered structure could have uses beyond the cell-based meat space as well. In the plant-based food arena, for example, mycelium could be used as the foundation for new, even meatier versions of already popular vegetarian items like the Bill Gates-backed “bleeding” Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger.

Those companies could essentially “use our scaffolding and infuse it with their ingredients and flavorings,” Bayer said.

Several other startups aiming to replace animal products with vegetarian options have turned to fungi for its preferential texture and naturally neutral flavor.

Wild Earth, a startup making vegan dog treats, uses koji – the fungi that gives soy sauce and miso soup their umami kick – in its products. Similarly, startup Terramino Foods is exploring using koji as the central ingredient for its “salmon” burgers.

For now, Ecovative isn’t sure which path in the sustainable food arena – whether it’s cell-based meat or plant-based meat alternatives – the company will end up pursuing the most heavily. The company’s overarching goal is to make its mycelium design platform available to everyone, Bayer said on Tuesday at a launch event hosted by global science conference SynBioBeta.

Regardless, Bayer said he sees a place for his company at the food-of-the-future table.

“This is the next natural step in this evolution to use natural products to make things,” Bayer said. “As the biology advances and the tech advances alongside it, you’re going to see more people building on this platform.”

Ants as drug manufacturers for humans?

Ants as drug manufacturers for humans?

Ants naturally produce powerful germicides against bacteria and fungi, revealed a study that targeted the industrious insects as possible drug factories for humans.

The discovery of ants’ pharmaceutical prowess comes as the armoury of effective antibiotics developed by humans over the last 100 years dwindles in the face of growing germ resistance.

Experiments with 20 ant species found antimicrobials on 12 of them, a team reported in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

“This means ants are probably a good place to look if you want to discover new antimicrobial compounds,” study co-author Clint Penick of the Arizona State University in the US told AFP.

Ants produce the compounds in special glands often referred to as their “chemical factories”.

“Ants coat their bodies with secretions from these glands, and some ants distribute these antimicrobials around their nests similar to how we would use antiseptic cleaners in our homes,” said Penick.

The team tested the ant-manufactured chemicals on a usually harmless bacterium commonly found on human skin, Staphylococcus epidermidis.

Compounds produced by different species varied in their germ-killing effectiveness, the researchers found. The chemicals have yet to be tested on bacteria capable of causing human disease.

“It is important to note that there have been over 15,000 ant species described, and each species is likely to produce many different compounds that could have antimicrobial action,” said Penick.

“We have taken the first steps to identify which ant lineages have the highest potential to produce antibiotics that work against human diseases, but there is much work left to identify the chemicals that work as antibiotics and to figure out how to synthesise them.”

Insects which live in large, tightly-knit social groups – ideal breeding grounds for disease – have long been thought to be a promising source of new antibiotics, Penick said.

But until now, very few have actually been tested.

Ants use their chemical defences against a number of microbial invaders. These include several bacteria, and a fungus that turns the ants into “zombies” by releasing chemicals that hijack the insect’s central nervous system, effectively taking its body for a ride before killing it.

A key question is why ant-attacking pathogens have not developed resistance to antimicrobials that the insects have presumably been using for millions of years, whereas many human-developed drugs lose their potency within just decades.

Another key finding of the study concerned the eight ant species which did not produce an antimicrobial, at least none that was effective against the bacterium being tested.

If a species does not produce antimicrobials, it means they must have found another way to protect themselves against disease, the team said.

“We are excited to learn how some of these ant species might be doing that,” added Penick.

The UN describes growing drug resistance – caused partly by overexposure to antibiotics – as a “global health emergency”, risking a future in which people die of ailments easily curable today. – AFP Relaxnews

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