Insect Cell Culture

Insect Tissue Engineering for Cellular Agriculture

New Harvest Research Fellow: Natalie Rubio, PhD Candidate, Biomedical Engineering, Tufts University

Project Start Date: August 2016

Project Duration: Full time; Four years funded; One year optional extra for completion.

Institutes: Tufts University, Boston, MA, USA; NIH P41 Tissue Engineering Resource Center, Boston, MA, USA

Supervisors: Dr. David Kaplan (Professor/Chair, Biomedical Engineering; Tufts University)​​:

Project Abstract: 

Cellular agriculture is the emerging field of manufacturing animal products (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) from cells rather than whole animals. This bottom-up approach to food production is projected to be more sustainable, safe and humane than intensive livestock farming. Principle obstacles in the field include (1) large-scale production of relevant cell types (e.g., muscle, fat), (2) serum-free growth media and (3) three-dimensional, structured tissue formation. While these goals are similar to the aims of tissue engineering for medical applications, cellular agriculture technologies are also constrained by cost- efficiency as cell-based food should be cost-competitive with conventional analogs. Insect cell and tissue culture is a promising platform for cost-efficient production of cell-based meat. Large-scale insect cell production is well-documented due to the recombinant protein production industry and multiple serum- free media formulations are commercially available. While insect-based tissue engineering has been previously pursued in the field of soft robotics and bioactuation, advances have been minimal. The aim of my research is to develop a three-dimensional culture system for insect tissue biofabrication with consideration for food applications. To achieve this, Natalie will focus on (1) cell line development and serum- free media formulation, (2) scaffold fabrication and (3) nutrient and texture analysis. Natalie plans to use cells from three sources: a genetically immortalized GFP-expressing D. melanogaster adult muscle precursor cell line and primary cells isolated from M. sexta and A. domesticus. Natalie will evaluate sustainable biomaterials such as mushroom-derived chitosan, cellulose and silk protein in 2D (e.g., micropatterned films) and 3D (e.g., sponge, hydrogel) formats. The nutrient profile and texture characteristics of resulting tissues will be compared to conventional meat products. This work will set a foundation for future exploration in the field of invertebrate cell and tissue technologies.


Natalie Rubio is the first recipient of the New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellowship. New Harvest created the New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellowship in 2015 in partnership with the Tissue Engineering Research Center (TERC) at Tufts University. TERC is an NIH-supported initiative that focuses on functional tissue engineering through a systems approach to integrate the key elements of tissue engineering: cells, scaffold, and bioreactors. 

TERC is based at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts and is directed by Professor David Kaplan, in whose lab Natalie will be working. Dr. Kaplan works on tissue engineering beyond medical applications, so it is the perfect place for biofabricated foods to develop. 

Natalie started volunteering with New Harvest in 2014. In the summer of 2014, she traveled with Isha and Ryan and Perumal from Muufri to Cork, Ireland where she worked as part of Muufri's team as they began an accelerator program through Indie.Bio




Natalie's first day in the lab!