Meat is a central (and delicious) part of the worldwide food industry, but it's loaded with ethical quandaries. Is it okay to kill animals for food? And how can we eat so much meat when it leaves such a huge environmental footprint on the Earth? Growing meat in the lab from cultured cells is a promising solution, and now a team of food scientists has developed a new method for spinning starchy structures that could hold a steak together. Stranger still, this device is made of Lego.

Rather than raise and slaughter animals for every morsel of meat, growing the stuff in the lab makes more sense – at least theoretically. A small biopsy can be taken from an anesthetized animal without hurting it, then the muscle stem cells are cultured in a nutrient-rich bath to produce an essentially endless amount of meat.

This "lab-grown," "cultured," or "clean" meat usually takes the form of an amorphous lump, lending itself well to minced meat or burger patties. But foods like steaks are harder to cultivate, since they require muscles to grow in strict structures.

Fixing that problem was the goal of the new study. The team, made up of researchers from Penn State and the University of Alabama, spun corn starch into fiber mats that could support muscle cells while they grew into steak-like products. They found that properly aligned fibers were stronger than those in a crisscrossed pattern and, importantly, the structures are edible.

"We've been able to align our scaffolding that could grow aligned muscle cells," says Gregory Ziegler, corresponding author of the study. "A lot of scaffoldings that have been put out there for biomedical applications have synthetic plastic fibers. Who wants to eat plastic, right? Even if it's biodegradable, people don't want plastic in their meat. Here we have starch, and it just comes from corn. The idea is we could make a nice edible clean scaffold for our clean meat."

To make these starch scaffolds, the team used a wet electrospinning technique. That involves a device that dispenses the starch solution from a nozzle towards a rotating collection drum, which draws the material into long threads. This is done with the help of an electrical field around the drum, which is submerged in a bath of alcohol and water.

The team's choice of building materials for the device was also interesting – Lego. Not only is the stuff cheap, but the team says the plastic is perfect because it doesn't conduct electricity, keeping the electric field only where it's needed.

The next step, the team says, is to actually check how well muscle cells will grow on these starch mats. After that, they could test the technique as a way to 3D print all kinds of structures.

The research was published in the journal Food Hydrocolloids.

Source: Penn State

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