Science and Technology

Técnico scientists use algae to create sea bass fillet under laboratory conditions

The Algae2Fish project, led by professor Frederico Ferreira, has recently received funding (€215 000) from the Good Food Institute.

Have you ever imagined yourself tasting a sea bass fillet created under laboratory conditions, using 3D printing techniques? This may be closer to reality than we think, thanks to Algae2Fish, a project developed by 4 researchers from the Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (iBB) at Técnico. The team will create the first whole fish fillet, in vitro, using 3D printing.

Professor Frederico Ferreira (Department of Bioengineering – DBE) is leading the project, which has received funding (€215 000) from The Good Food Institute (GFI). The project officially started in December 2021, but according to Diana Marques, Técnico MSc student and project researcher, “the fillet prototype will be optimised and then tested by a panel of people only 2 years from now”.

The truth is that creating a sea bass fillet under laboratory conditions, with the same nutritional properties as a real one, and recreating its complex fibrous texture is not an easy task, but the team is doing its best to accomplish this task successfully.

The algae-based bioinks that represent the main component of the fillet were developed by the team, which also includes Carlos Rodrigues and Paola Alberte, iBB researchers and experts in bioengineering and 3D bioprinting. The result couldn’t be more promising: “It showed great resolution after 3D printing”, shares Diana Marques.

“There will be two specific bioinks, one for fish muscle and other for fish fat, which will be transformed into the correct muscle and fat scaffolds, in order to create a similar texture of a traditional fillet”, explains Diana Marques.

Sea bass cells will be added to the bioinks and then it will be possible to print the previously defined fillet structure. After being printed, the cells will still have to multiply, grow in the right way and differentiate themselves in the final tissue. To this end, after the printing process, electrical and biochemical stimulation will ignite the fish stem cells’ transformation into the correct muscle and fat needed for the fillet production.

Although there are other works in progress in this field, Diana Marques stresses “none of them includes the production of a whole fish fillet – combining muscle and fat – using 3D bioprinting”.

In addition to the similar appearance and texture of a traditional sea bass fillet, these fillets created under laboratory conditions, will come to our tables without bones and, more important, free of heavy metals or microplastics that can be found in fish. Furthermore, from a nutritional point of view, the researchers expect that the health benefits will be the same. “The nutritional value – protein content, omega-3s, vitamins, etc. – and the organoleptic properties – texture and flavour – will be optimised to be as close as possible to the traditional sea bass fillet”, says Diana Marques. As for the taste, the team cannot guarantee that it will be completely identical, but professor Frederico Ferreira shares “it will taste good”.

The Algae2Fish project could contribute to meet the growing demand for fish

The idea behind the project comes from Diana Marques, after a working group within the scope of the Entrepreneurship course unit, taught by professor Frederico Ferreira. The team’s idea was “making sushi in the lab” and the project stood out at the E.Awards@ Técnico 2019. Diana Marques decided that her master’s thesis in Biotechnology would be on this topic under the supervision of professor Frederico Ferreira.

Diana Marques highlights “there are very few companies and research work in the area of fish produced under laboratory conditions. In addition, we are the first project using 3D bioprinting and sea bass stem cells”.

“There is strong evidence that this technique can later be used for another type of cells”, says Diana Marques. For this reason, it is quite possible that this project will result in a method of growing fish that can be marketed to companies in this sector.

If this technique created in the iBB laboratories, at Taguspark campus, is eventually expanded and used by food manufacturers, new supply chain industries will be created to supply this raw material so appreciated by the Portuguese people, the 4th biggest consumer of fish in the European Union. In global terms, and according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, in the last 30 years, the food fish consumption has increased by 122 percent. Intensive fish farming and aquaculture, together with the problem of pollution, are endangering marine habitats. This project aims to tackle this problem and to prevent overfishing.