Student Sustainability Committee awards bioengineering team funding for lab-grown meat project


Huan Song

In December 2020, Singapore became the first nation to approve the commercial sale of lab-grown or cultured meat. This is a landmark moment for the meat industry and signals the direction for the future of food. Students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will be joining research efforts at this frontier. Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Aidan Brougham-Cook leads Clean Meats at Illinois, a pilot project that was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC). The SSC funds high-impact and innovative projects with the goal of making the university a leader in campus sustainability.

Clean meat is made from animal cells grown in a laboratory setting. These food products are typically cultivated from pig, cow or chicken cells. Cellular agriculture technology can be an effective solution to combat food access issues and climate challenges typically associated with traditional production.

 Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Aidan Brougham-Cook
Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate Aidan Brougham-Cook
"I've always been attracted to the idea of sustainable tech and making sustainable choices, but it's been limited to my personal life," said Brougham-Cook. "This cultivated meat project bridges my personal interests with my work on cell and tissue engineering." 

Over the past few years, Brougham-Cook has been researching liver disease in the Tissue Development and Engineering Laboratory directed by bioengineering professor Gregory Underhill. He first heard about cultivated meats as a high school student and was intrigued by it,  but now he feels that he now has the skills needed to dive into the technical details of such a project.  Brougham-Cook said, "during my time in grad school, I've learned a lot about cell culture and the design and use of different biomaterials. I've really been able to hone these skills in Dr. Underhill's lab."

"This is a new research area for our lab, and was completely driven by Aidan’s interests and his initiative to explore a way to interface our tissue engineering work with sustainable food applications, " said Underhill, who serves as the project's faculty advisor. "We are excited to start these efforts and lay the groundwork for a number of future projects."

Brougham-Cook stresses that the existence of this project speaks to the culture of innovation and openness of the bioengineering department. "There is a willingness to experiment and try new ideas out at the professor level, the lab level, throughout the department and across campus," he said.

Over 12 months, this pilot project aims to explore the feasibility of growing meat products locally, the best way to employ 3-D cell culture and analysis, and implement a robust clean meat initiative on campus, the first of its kind at the University of Illinois. 

Community building is another focus for Clean Meat at Illinois. "As a lab, we've been cultivating a pool of really talented undergraduate researchers," said Brougham-Cook. Bioengineering undergraduates Lauren Krause and Daniel Owens are also a part of the project team along with Michael Stablein from the department of agricultural and biological engineering.  

Bioengineering undergraduate student Lauren Krause
Bioengineering undergraduate student Lauren Krause
“The industry is not only up and coming, but it is a way to relieve the current non-sustainable ways the industrial meat industry creates,” said Krause. “I’m excited to be a part of something so important! And more excited to be able to bring this opportunity to more undergrads as well.”

Brougham-Cook emphasizes that having strong undergraduate involvement is crucial to the success of the project, and it is also the first stepping stone to launching a registered student organization around alternative proteins. Their organization, the Alternative Protein Club, will focus on educational and research projects related to cell-based meats, plant proteins, and fermentation-derived ingredients. 

“It’s critical for students to be positioned to pursue a variety of specific career interests as this protein research is for me,” said Krause. “Not only am I excited about the pure research aspect of the alternative protein endeavor, but also the ability to impact other students’ career development.”

The team envisions it becoming a multidisciplinary network involving biologists, food scientists, and faculty and students from other disciplines. Education and awareness building will also play key roles to bring alternative proteins to market — and eventually into meals served around campus and beyond. 

Stay up to date with the Alternative Protein Club by registering your interest here: