Lab grown fruits

Currently, one of the biggest barriers vertical farmers face is the huge demand for electricity, to which artificial lighting requirements are a major contributing factor. Innovators are working hard to solve this problem and explore possible solutions that implement scientific and technical knowledge from a variety of disciplines.

The AVF spoke to Lucas van der Zee, who is working on 'Fruit of Knowledge', a research project that undoubtedly pushes the boundaries of agricultural science in numerous novel ways. His technology has many of the same advantages of vertical farming, such as the absence of pesticides and reduced water and nutrient requirements; but, interestingly, it does not require light at any point in the process. “It extends what you think is possible, so we think there will be a lot of interesting spin-offs.”

Preventing photosynthesis using sugar

In his pioneering research in 1951, JP Nitsch cut a flower from a tomato and grew it in a medium of sugars and nutrients until a fully developed tomato fruit emerged:

'Fruit of Knowledge' is working on "radically innovative food production technology to produce only the harvestable organs instead of the entire plant." It uses a carbohydrate/sugar source to feed the plant directly instead of using a light source, which would normally drive photosynthesis to produce the carbohydrates/sugar needed for growth. This completely eliminates the light source requirement from the process.

“The idea is that instead of letting light produce that sugar, you could have a site somewhere in the world [with] good environmental conditions where you can produce the sugars […] You have to produce a sustainable source of sugars and then transport them to areas where fresh fruit/plant production is difficult.”

The sugar used is simply table sugar, specifically sucrose. So the sugar can come from sugar beets or cane sugar, but Lucas suggests it could also be "[...] a recycled form of sugar [from] food waste that is hydrolyzed to create sugars."

The process will also implement new cutting-edge technology to induce flowering "... instantly instead of growing a whole plant" and without genetic modification, which has clear advantages with respect to consumer acceptance.

“We have this transdisciplinary design process, which basically involves [having] conversations with people in the industry and we really want to involve the AVF network. So vertical farmers, but also people in the tissue culture industry, chefs/restaurants and consumers.”

The objective is to clearly define what are the requirements for a successful product using this technology, with the intention of reaching the vertical farming community to obtain information during the design process:

“We really want to know how this technology could work for vertical farmers […] and get insights into that.” The idea for the Fruit of Knowledge research project took root at Wageningen University, where Lucas initially investigated the feasibility of this new type of 'lab-grown fruit' agriculture.

“I saw that all the different steps in the process had been basically tested in science, but no one has really put the whole process together or investigated it. There are still some bottlenecks in terms of process efficiency, but there are solutions for those […] we want to set up a 4-year research project to see if we can produce fruit without a plant ”.

The project is now a collaborative effort between the Horticulture and Product Physiology (HPP) group at Wageningen University; the Biochemistry Laboratory of Wageningen University; and the Research Unit of Plants and Cultivation Systems in Horticulture (PSH) of INRAE.

“The difficult part about this is, on the one hand, some of the science is at the fundamental level, especially inducing [flowering]. On the other hand, it really applies. Therefore, our main challenge at the moment is to find the right funding source that falls between these two levels: both applied, but also more fundamental science."

The Four Steps of Lab Grown Fruit Production

  • Part 1: Multiplication stage
    First, a source of stem cells is required. Then they multiply. For lab-grown fruit, the stem cells come from the meristem at the tip of the plant's shoot. "This is basically something we have to optimize a little bit and make sure we have a good system in place because once we have a lot of meristems, we can do all our experiments with that."
  • Part 2: "The big fundamental question: how do we induce flowering in these meristems?" "We have found what we really think is a revolutionary technology by inducing these flowers without using genetic modification."
  • Part 3: Induction of fruit production. Once a flower has been pollinated, specific compounds are produced in the plant that cause the fruit to begin to grow. Instead of pollination, it is possible to directly apply these compounds and induce the passage of the fruit. This has been researched pretty well already, so it won't be the main focus of the project.
  • Part 4: Growing the fruit. This involves providing optimal carbohydrates and nutrients. Fruit of Knowledge also proposes to innovate bioreactors for fruit cultivation. "So our two main areas of focus are flower induction with this new technology and also modeling and experimentation with fruit growth."

Future scope, commercialization and derived applications
Fruit of Knowledge intends to dedicate the first two years of research to solving some fundamental problems. After four years, they want to present both proofs of concept and some concept designs to show how this technology could be implemented, working with stakeholders to see how it can be turned into a commercial reality. This will also involve optimizing some quality attributes, including taste, as well as scaling up, working on system efficiency, and understanding consumer acceptance.

For now, the research is being carried out using tomatoes as a model fruit, but Lucas is positive about the possibility of expanding to other products in the future: “I expect some translation will be needed, but many of the fundamentals will be the same. »

Lucas is also excited about the potential spin-off applications, including the “myriad” of great applications that could stem from the ability to control bloom or induce rapid bloom. “Maybe you want to have more control over your supply-demand and flowering, or maybe you want to flower much earlier or do a really fast reproduction, that kind of thing […] if we have this high precision control system to grow a fruit then there are many ideas we can get. For example, the relationships between the influx of nutrients and sugars and the final quality of the fruit ”. 

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