Science

Edible fibers boost the texture of lab-grown meat

Edible fibers boost the textur...
Not looking much like meat yet, some of the gelatin fiber scaffolds wait to be seeded with muscle cells
Not looking much like meat yet, some of the gelatin fiber scaffolds wait to be seeded with muscle cells
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Not looking much like meat yet, some of the gelatin fiber scaffolds wait to be seeded with muscle cells
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Not looking much like meat yet, some of the gelatin fiber scaffolds wait to be seeded with muscle cells
A comparison of the gelatin fibers (top) and natural rabbit skeletal muscle (bottom)
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A comparison of the gelatin fibers (top) and natural rabbit skeletal muscle (bottom)

Although lab-grown meat could be a more ethical, eco-friendly alternative to the "real" thing, its texture still leaves something to be desired. That may be about to change, though, thanks to the use of edible gelatin scaffolds.

The meat that people currently eat mostly consists of slaughtered animals' skeletal muscle, which takes the form of long, thin fibers. And while it's possible to grow the muscle cells in the lab, they don't form into such fibers, resulting in a meat texture that is off-puttingly unnatural.

With that in mind, scientists at Harvard University's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences utilized a process known as rotary jet-spinning, to create nanofibers made of a food-safe gelatin. The researchers proceeded to produce three-dimensional assemblages of the fibers, which mimicked the extracellular matrix which serves as the structural scaffold within natural muscle tissue.

A comparison of the gelatin fibers (top) and natural rabbit skeletal muscle (bottom)
A comparison of the gelatin fibers (top) and natural rabbit skeletal muscle (bottom)

When rabbit and cow muscle cells were subsequently seeded into the assemblages, those cells anchored themselves to the fibers and began reproducing, ultimately forming into meat with a fibrous structure and texture. In fact, when mechanical testing was used to compare that lab-grown meat to natural rabbit, bacon, beef tenderloin, prosciutto and other meats, the texture was found to be similar … but there is still some work to be done.

"Although the cultured and natural products had comparable texture, natural meat contained more muscle fibers, meaning they were more mature," says postdoctoral fellow Luke Macqueen, first author of the study. "Muscle and fat cell maturation in vitro are still a really big challenge that will take a combination of advanced stem cell sources, serum-free culture media formulations, edible scaffolds such as ours, as well as advances in bioreactor culture methods to overcome […] Eventually, we think it may be possible to design meats with defined textures, tastes, and nutritional profiles – a bit like brewing."

A paper on the research, which is being led by Prof. Kit Parker, was recently published in the journal Nature Science of Food.

Source: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

7 comments
zr2s10
Doesn't gelatin come from cow bones? Seems kind of defeating the purpose
buzzclick
Why do I think of Soylent Green when I read about fake meat alternatives like this? You won't find me eating this stuff. Just eat less meat. There's plenty of other healthy and flavorful food choices. This lab meat is ideal for astronauts.
eyeIZ
Why all the waste of time on "unmeat"? If you are a vegan then eat vegetables and leave the rest of us alone. If you need "unmeat" then maybe you are not a vegan.
guzmanchinky
I love meat. This technology cannot be perfected quickly enough for me.
Douglas Rogers
One day you may see large populations living in O'neil cylinders, that may not want to spare the room for cattle.
Trylon
@zr2s10 There are companies working to synthesize gelatin, or specifically collagen. @eyeIZ It's terrible for the environment to raise an entire cow, pig, chicken or other animal just for the meat. You have to feed, water and sustain all of the internal organs and bones for months or years. It would be so much less wasteful to directly feed lab-grown muscle with nutrient solutions. Your so-called "unmeats" are not just for vegans.
ljaques
Vegetarian gelatin has been around for years. I wonder which they use... So, what is this stuff they're brewing, Soylent GMO? // I have to laugh every time my vegetarian neighbor (who eats mostly junk food) talks about a new find. She eats vegetarian sausage, vegetarian hot dogs, vegetarian corn dogs, and vegetarian hamburgers. I have to admit that MorningStar Farms Grillers are pretty decent veggie subs for burger meat. But every single vegetarian I know eats MEAT-SHAPED, MEAT-FLAVORED veggies. It's hilarious. I'm with eyeIZ in saying "If you're a vegan/vegetarian/lacto-ovo-vegetarian, leave us alone and go eat your veggies. I'm charcoal broiling any meat I can get my hands on. Yuh Uh Um! P.S: I love the smell of cow ferts in the morning.