Does coffee from the lab sound tasty? I have been told that it can certainly keep up with conventional coffee and is also particularly environmentally friendly.
I spoke with Dr. Heiko Rischer, Principal Scientist/Head of Plant Biotechnology at VTT, Espoo, Finland, about whether environmentally friendly coffee in the future will come from the lab rather than the plantation, how coffee is grown in the lab, the biggest challenges in dealing with plant cell suspension cultures, and why cellular agriculture is gaining interest right now. The best-known example of cellular agriculture is probably meat grown in the laboratory.
You have grown coffee in the laboratory, and this has generated some buzz in the media. What was your motivation to do this?
First, I have to say, we are not coffee experts as such. We have been working with the larger topic of cellular agriculture for quite a while now. Cellular agriculture produces agricultural products from cell cultures. It uses a combination of biotechnology, tissue engineering, molecular biology, and synthetic biology to develop new methods for producing proteins, fats, and tissues that would otherwise come from traditional agriculture.
As a multi-disciplinary institute, we are looking at this from different angles. Our colleagues, for example, have been exploring protein production in microbes for quite a while. On the commercial level, this is very advanced already. The first products are now appearing, especially in the US. Then, of course, lab-grown meat using animal cells is something everybody has heard about. This field is already pretty competitive with quite a lot of startups emerging.
Looking at the host level, plant cells are also available for biotechnological production, and we have started to focus on this. We are mostly working with products that are more like intermediates for the cosmetics or medical industries or ingredients of food. All of this is not usually very tangible for the consumer to understand. So we wanted to pick a case study where we can showcase the whole technology, the whole process from start to end, and we especially wanted to do this with a product people can relate to. So then this coffee case came to mind, and it actually did the trick very well. It has now received an enormous response everywhere and is a very good proof of concept.
So this research project was a kind of marketing idea?
Yes, but it serves different purposes. One was for consumers to learn about the technology. One of the main reasons was to create awareness of the idea and this kind of disruptive technology in the industry, and thereby create an interest in collaboration and in getting the products to market.
Our institute is a research provider, and we will never develop products. We help companies do these kinds of things, and then we do research for them. So we need a partnership for the actual development of products from plant cells.
You said there are many other products that you are producing with cellular agriculture. So is this a growing market?
It remains to be seen. The whole idea of cellular agriculture is only a few years old. The roots are, of course, in biotechnology. All of these host systems, microorganisms, plants, and animal cells have been used to produce all kinds of compounds for decades. Usually, certain metabolic products or certain proteins are extracted from the biomass, such as insulin for example. The new part is that you focus more on these so-called cellular products, that is, you basically use all the biomass without extracting anything. This goes hand in hand with the trends in the food industry for clean label and integrated products and is driven by sustainability concepts.
Obtaining identical plant or animal products from cells outside of a plant or animal makes it possible to dispense with most of the conventional farming and long-distance transport of the products. So that’s the big driver behind it. The biotechnology is as just mentioned nothing new, but close collaboration with food sciences is what is new. That means, it doesn’t end with the biotech; you have to process the material, for example, you have to shape it, formulate it, and so on. These are all things that are not traditional from the biotech side.
Can you explain how you grow coffee in the lab?
The demand for coffee is enormous. We see small startups emerging that are trying to make some kind of synthetic coffee. Basically, they put together flavor components from different origins, and then they call the product coffee. It might taste like coffee, but it has nothing to do with coffee.
In our case what we get is 100 % coffee. Of course, we have a slightly different process to conventional coffee production. Conventionally, trees would produce coffee cherries, you would harvest them, you would take out the green beans, and so on, and then you would roast them, grind them, and in the end you would have your coffee.
Our process also starts with the plant, but we establish cell cultures from any part of the plant. In this case, we started with arabica coffee cells. Before we start, we need to get rid of all kinds of contamination. This is a sterile process; we only want coffee cells to grow in our system.
First, we initiate coffee cell cultures, then we establish appropriate cell lines in the laboratory, and then we transfer them to bioreactors to start producing biomass. That happens in nutrient media. The interesting thing about plant media is that they are much simpler than animal cell culture media, which are problematic because there are so many organic components and partly animal-derived components that sometimes turn the whole thing upside down. In the case of plants, only minerals, sugar as an energy source, and a few growth regulators in very tiny concentrations are needed.
The important thing here is the scaling. We are going from the laboratory scale to the bioreactor scale to the pilot scale, where we can eventually harvest the biomass.
What you get in the end is a sort of smoothie material, with high water content, but only coffee cells. This material is then dried so that you end up with a whitish or beige-white powder. This would correspond to the green bean in the conventional process. Then we have to roast this material as well. It’s a bit of a challenge because it’s not a hard bean, but a powder, and this has its own processing challenges. Still, we can come to different roasting grades and obtain light brown or darker brown powder at the end. This powder can be brewed directly in a filter. So we basically cut out the green bean and grinding from the conventional process, but the rest is pretty similar.
And in the end, your coffee looks like real or conventional coffee?
Exactly. The brew you get from the filter looks very much like coffee.
What about the flavors? Are they really just coming out of the coffee cells you are producing?
Yes. That was something we didn’t know at the beginning and couldn’t even expect to actually work. But it appears that roasting does the trick, and the flavor precursors do seem to be in these cell cultures.
But by no means are these processes optimized in any way. For this proof-of-concept experiment, we basically had this one shot, more or less.
But, of course, the taste is the most important thing for the coffee product. We wanted to look into that, so we had our internal sensory panel taste the brew. This is not as simple as it sounds, as lab-grown coffee is an experimental food and requires regulatory approval as a Novel Food in Europe. So we had to go through our ethics committee to get a special permit to allow us to perform this tasting exercise.
Of course, we had reference samples of conventional coffee and the result of the tasting was that the taste is pretty close to coffee. Of course, it’s not exactly the same, but there are a lot of parameters that can be varied and optimized.
In parallel, we also did analytical evaluations and there, too, you can see that the flavor profiles are pretty similar. Most of the relevant peaks are also present in this type of material. So all in all a good start, but far from being perfected or optimized.
And the flavor comes from the kind of cells you use or from the kind of “food” you give the cells during the process?
That’s a good question. We haven’t really looked into that but, of course, when you look at conventional coffee, there is also the terroir influence from where the coffee grows and the cultivar itself, and the genotype and so on have an effect. So it’s very likely that these parameters are important. Also the culture conditions might be very important, and they might lead to a change in certain components. So these are the degrees of freedom that you have in this type of cultivation.
Of course, there is a high degree of controllability of all these factors because it is a closed production system that is 100 % controlled, so it is very different from cultivation in nature, which depends on all kinds of factors, as you know.
Yeah, it’s interesting. So there are lots of new research opportunities.
What was most challenging during the process, or did you know exactly how to do everything because of your other experiments?
Well we do have quite a lot of expertise in working with a diversity of plants, but it’s always case by case when cultivating plants. One plant is different from the other, and even on the cultivar level, you might have differences. It is usually a very empirical process to initiate and establish a cell culture. So this is always a tricky part.
Then, when it comes to the upscaling, this is also, let’s say, a more empiric kind of process: one has to play around with many parameters and get them right. So there are many things in the process that are not standard but, of course, it helps if you have certain expertise.
So it’s not easy to just transfer this process from one plant cell to the next one?
Not so simple, no. Of course, there are some general rules but it’s not exactly the same.
You said earlier that this was partly a project to show more people what your research is about. So are you following up on this research? Are you looking for somebody who will scale up the process or are you looking for more specific flavors?
Yes, that’s interesting because initially, it wasn’t our aim to work on this specific case. After all, as I said, we don’t see ourselves as real coffee experts. But the response was so great; we have received requests to work on this topic in a targeted manner and are of course open to it. As I mentioned before, our central mission is to team up with companies and help them develop new products, especially in the area of cellular agriculture. We feel that we are kind of the visionaries, so to speak, and we are of course happy when this finds success in real applications.
There are so many aspects of this technology that need to be established and most importantly, it needs a visionary for it to take off and investment is needed quite heavily as well. I also mentioned the regulatory issue, which, of course, is time-consuming and costly.
Cellular agriculture is also a disruptive technology for the industry because it’s a rather large mindset shift for the food industry to switch from a supplier, where they kind of depend on raw materials and on importing them, to a situation where they are actually the producer of a material. It’s a big change, but it is interesting because there are a lot of changes happening in the industry these days and, as already mentioned, sustainability is a big driver. Many industry leaders are meanwhile realizing that we could face big problems, and no one wants to follow the “Kodak experience” or anything like that and become obsolete. Even very conservative companies are becoming more open to these ideas and at least want to find out what options there are.
So it’s still unclear as to whether we’ll all be eating lab-grown things in 50 years?
Of course, nobody has a crystal ball, but on the one hand, we see climate-related problems mounting, and on the other hand, we see the consumers’ wish for more transparency and more local production, more traceability, and all these things. These are consumer-oriented demands to which the industry may react even more effectively than to supply issues or the like. But supply issues are also a big problem.
You just said that demand for sustainable, local products is growing strongly. Do you think people will accept that their coffee, for example, is grown in their neighborhood, but in a lab?
We have been running some surveys. They are not representative, but rather small studies, and it took us by surprise that the majority of people want to see this. Our previous experience was always more in the GMO (genetically modified organisms) kind of direction, and this is still mostly a no-go in Europe. So we were not sure how these kinds of new technologies would resonate, but apparently, it seems to be a completely different story.
The opportunities with these kinds of biotech approaches are that you have the whole spectrum of scales available. You can think about really large industrial settings, hundreds of thousands of liters of bioreactors perhaps, but then you can also think about more local production settings, for example, in cafes, restaurants, or schools, or even at home. We have presented some ideas for that. This offers quite a lot of flexibility. But in all these cases you would produce much closer to the actual consumer and that alone cuts out a lot of transport and this kind of supply chain, which makes it much more sustainable.
So it has potential, but whether it will have a breakthrough or not remains to be seen.
Those are really fascinating ideas and concepts. Can you say something about your other research projects?
For many years, we have been working more in the pharmaceutical field, so in using medicinal plants to produce certain secondary metabolites, compounds used for drugs.
Then, over the years, we moved more and more into the cosmetics field. In cosmetics, there was a similar trend as in food, namely, so-called plant stem cells were used as cosmetic ingredients. With that, we started looking more for integrated materials without necessarily extracting much, and the scale also became bigger and bigger. This then basically led us to this food direction.
However, we are still doing all these things in different kinds of settings in our institute. We have a, let’s say, commercial track where we do commissioned research services for companies, and then we have another part that is jointly funded projects, for example, EU projects and other nationally funded projects, in partnership with others, such as universities and companies, so this is the public side of things. It is pretty diverse, but all of it is applied research; we do not have total academic freedom. We have our own mission and strategy at VTT, which are mainly aligned with the biggest global challenges of our time.
Can you say a bit about your career path?
My academic background is in the interface between chemistry and biology. Originally, I started off with vocational training as a chemistry technician, then after that, I did my biology diploma, and then, again, I moved to chemistry. I did my Ph.D. in natural products chemistry. Then I moved as a postdoc to VTT about 20 years ago and somehow got stuck here in biotechnology, which is a mixture of chemistry and biology plus some other disciplines. So it fits nicely with my expertise and interests.
At VTT we don’t do any teaching. I work as an Adjunct Professor and teach pharmaceutical biology at Helsinki University. This is more of a private exercise, so as not to lose touch with academia completely. Of course, we also supervise students in my team at VTT; we have different exchange interns via the Erasmus program or master’s or Ph.D. students. This is also important for us to keep in touch with what is happening in basic science.
What do you enjoy most about these tasks or is it the variety?
For me, it is really the variety. It is a lot of work, and you have to switch from, let’s say, more commercial thinking to more scientific thinking and then back again quite often during the day, but I like this variety.
And what are you doing when you’re not working?
Not much—sleeping mostly [laughs]. Hobby wise, I am into photography a bit.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Heiko Rischer studied biology at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, and gained his Ph.D. in natural products chemistry from the Justus-Maximilian University, Würzburg, Germany, in 2002. Since a postdoctoral stay funded by a Marie Curie grant, he has worked at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Ltd., Espoo, Finland, where he is currently Principal Scientist/Head of Plant Biotechnology. He has also been an Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki since 2009.
Heiko Rischer’s research deals with the production of biotechnological products for use in the medical, cosmetics, or food industry. For this purpose, different hosts from plant cells are used.
- Y. Kobayashi, E. Kärkkäinen, S. T. Häkkinen, L. Nohynek, A. Ritala, H. Rischer, H. L. Tuomisto, Life cycle assessment of plant cell cultures, Science of the Total Environment 2022, 808, 151990. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.151990
- H. Rischer, L. Nohynek, R. Puupponen-Pimiä, J. Aguiar, G. Rocchetti, L. Lucini, J. S. Câmara, T. Mendanha Cruz, M. Boscacci Marques, D. Granato, Plant cell cultures of Nordic berry species: phenolic and carotenoid profiling and biological assessments, Food Chemistry 2022, 366, 130571. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2021.130571
- E. Nordlund, H. Rischer, Plant cells grown in bioreactors, in: Cellular Agriculture – Lab-grown foods (Eds: D. Ercili-Cura & D. Barth), American Chemical Society (ACS), USA, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.infocus.7e4007
- H. Rischer, G.R. Szilvay and K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey, Cellular agriculture – industrial biotechnology for food and materials, Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2020, 61, 128-134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2019.12.003
- S. T. Häkkinen, H. Nygren, L. Nohynek, R. Puupponen‑Pimiä, R.‑L. Heiniö, N. Maiorova, H. Rischer, A. Ritala, Plant cell cultures as food — aspects of sustainability and safety, Plant Cell Rep. 2020, 39, 1655–1668. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00299-020-02592-2
- Emilia Nordlund, Martina Lille, Pia Silventoinen, Heli Nygren, Tuulikki Seppänen-Laakso, Atte Mikkelson, Anna-Marja Aura, Raija-Liisa Heiniö, Liisa Nohynek, Riitta Puupponen-Pimiä, Heiko Rischer, Plant cells as food – A concept taking shape, Food Res. Int. 2018, 107, 297–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2018.02.045
featured in ChemistryViews: Food from Plant Cell Cultures
- Jussi Suvanto, Liisa Nohynek, Tuulikki Seppänen-Laakso, Heiko Rischer, Juha-Pekka Salminen, Riitta Puupponen-Pimiä, Variability in the production of tannins and other polyphenols in cell cultures of 12 Nordic plant species, Planta 2017, 246, 227–241. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00425-017-2686-8
- L. Nohynek, M. Bailey, J. Tähtiharju, T. Seppänen-Laakso, H. Rischer, K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey, R. Puupponen-Pimiä, Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) cell culture with bioactive substances: Establishment and mass propagation for industrial use, Engineering in Life Sciences 2014, 14, 667–675. https://doi.org/10.1002/elsc.201400069
- Y. Wang, H. Rischer, N. T. Eriksen, M. G. Wiebe, Mixotrophic continuous flow cultivation of Chlorella protothecoides for lipids, Bioresource Technology 2013, 144, 608-614. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2013.07.027
- H. Rischer, S.T. Häkkinen, A. Ritala, T. Seppänen-Laakso, B. Miralpeix, T. Capell, P. Christou, K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey, Plant cells as pharmaceutical factories, Current Pharmaceutical Design 2013, 19, 5640-5660. https://doi.org/10.2174/1381612811319310017