Meet the researcher: Expanding the tentacles of alternative seafood research with Frederico Ferreira

A researcher working to develop the first cultivated octopus product is at the heart of a €7 million project bringing together European experts to boost knowledge about cultivated meat.

Name: Frederico Ferreira

Associate Professor Frederico Ferreira

Job title: Associate Professor  

Organisation: Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon

Sustainable protein specialism: Cultivated seafood

A researcher developing the first cultivated octopus product is at the heart of a €7 million project bringing together European experts to boost knowledge about cultivated meat.

Frederico Ferreira of Lisbon’s Instituto Superior Técnico is coordinating the Fostering European Cellular Agriculture for Sustainable Transition Solutions (FEASTS) project, funded by the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe programme.

FEASTS, formed after a call to fill knowledge gaps around cultivated meat and seafood, brings together 36 partners including universities, startups, business accelerators, independent consultants, food innovation initiatives, farmer representatives and a consumer association. The project will look into everything from production methods to supply chains and consumer acceptance.

The group aims to provide unbiased and open-access information about how to maximise the environmental, social, and economic benefits of cultivated meat, providing invaluable resources to researchers and policymakers who need to make important decisions as cultivated meat moves closer to commercialisation.

“The work to be done is groundbreaking and breathtaking,” Frederico said. “It is a collaborative effort that includes the assessment of sustainable technologies, ethical and regulatory aspects, business models and social impact studies.

“Ultimately, we aim to provide guidelines that contribute to better development of the sector. The consortium is terrific, it is a privilege to be part of it! As at any banquet, the more the merrier, so we hope to expand the number and scope of collaborations as the project progresses.”

Making a splash with alternative seafood research

Frederico took on the role following a long career in academia, but it was his desire to restore the biodiversity of Europe’s seas that led him to become a co-founder of Cell4Food, based on the island of Terceira in The Azores.

The startup aims to become the first in the world to develop cultivated octopus, something Frederico says is necessary as soaring demand means catches and prices are increasing, leading to fishermen using large plastic cages, depositing microplastics and causing problems with bycatch of other animals like sharks and turtles. 

Frederico is also interested in the technical challenge of developing cultivated octopus meat, which he says is an underresearched area. “It’s a blank page,” he says. “All of our work is a new discovery.” 

The plan is to develop a form of pulpa a la Gallega, a popular dish made from sliced octopus, and Frederico’s team of researchers are working to overcome technical challenges.

This includes producing a device enabling them to harmlessly take cell biopsies from octopuses while simultaneously capturing details such as location and time, before returning them to the water. 

They are also working in collaboration with Icelandic company ORF Genetics, which produces growth factors from barley, and with a Portuguese lab working on plant-based octopus that will form the basis of a hybrid product.

Real sea bass without the bones
Diana Marcques from Frederico’s team, working on cultivated fish scaffolding using algae.

Back in Lisbon, he has also been leading a GFI-funded project aiming to cultivate sea bass, creating a fish fillet with the same taste, texture and health benefits as conventionally produced sea bass, without the negative environmental impact.

The team, including members of the student-led Lisbon Alt Protein Project, has used techniques including 3D printing to create edible scaffolds using material extracted from algae and plants, giving structure to the product.

With the project now completed, Frederico has presented prototypes to GFI and EIT Food and is now embarking on a new three-year project funded by the Portuguese Government, including developing bioreactors using electrical waves to recreate the effect that the flow of water has on developing fish muscle cells.

Making space for other species

Frederico began his training by studying chemistry at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa with a minor in biotechnology before studying for a master’s in biophysics. 

This was followed by PhD in chemical engineering at London’s Imperial College and later industrial research projects with GSK – then still known as GlaxoSmithKline – before returning to Portugal where he eventually became Associate Professor at Lisbon’s Instituto Superior Técnico.

His career has led him to apply scientific knowledge to the various challenges in the alternative protein space. However, his decision to move into the field was influenced by a lifelong love of nature, instilled by family holidays to a rural area of Portugal where his family planted trees, as well as a love for the ocean developed during scuba diving trips.

He believes developing new foods is essential to help restore the planet’s rapidly depleting biodiversity. “We’re not making space for the other species on the planet,” he says. “And if we remove other animals from the equation, sooner or later that will come back to haunt us.”

However, the enthusiasm he encounters in students studying in the field is his main source of inspiration. 

“It’s a very different atmosphere from anything you see among scientists,” he said. “It motivates everyone around them. People who engage in this area think they are making a contribution to a better future. 

“We feel like we’re moving the boundaries of science every day. And that’s a very exciting thing to be involved in.”

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