Spinach leaf skeleton serves as eco-friendly scaffold for lab-grown meat
Lab-grown meat is shaping as an increasingly viable alternative to that sourced through traditional agriculture, but there are still details to work through in terms of the best way to produce it. Scientists at Boston College have developed a new technology that is greener than most, using the veiny skeleton of spinal leaves to support the growth of bovine animal protein for the first time.
Cultivating meat products from "cellular agriculture" rather than animals is seen as an important part of our food security moving forward, with the population booming and arable land shrinking. Lab-grown meat also promises to use a fraction of the water and energy of conventional meat production, while also side-stepping the issue of animal cruelty and significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But ridding animal products from the process entirely isn't exactly straightforward. Lab-grown beef, for example, is created by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from a cow, which are then fed and nurtured to multiply and form muscle tissue. But for this to mimic the texture of real meat the cells need structural support to thrive, and are therefore placed in a scaffold of some kind.
Some lab-grown meat products have achieved this through scaffolds made of gelatin sourced from animals, and experimental forms in the lab have used plastics. But recently progress has been made toward scaffolds that are both edible and animal-product-free. Aleph Farms for example, which earlier this year revealed the world's first lab-grown rib-eye steak, created its cruelty free animal products using scaffolds made of soy protein.
Now the Boston College team has put forward another plant-based solution. The breakthrough actually builds on earlier research in which the team managed to cultivate human heart tissue in the lab using a spinach leaf scaffold. These leaves had been stripped of their plant cells to leave behind a vascular network with a circulatory system that promoted the growth of human cardiac tissue.
This time around, the team used the veiny, decellularized spinach leaves as a scaffold for cow precursor meat cells. In this environment, the cells remained viable for up to 14 days before differentiating into muscle mass. While still an early proof of concept, the scientists believe the demonstration of their edible, plant-based scaffold lays the groundwork for further study, and may help shape the future of lab-grown meat products down the track.
"We need to scale this up by growing more cells on the leaves to create a thicker steak," says lead author Glenn Gaudette. "In addition, we are looking at other vegetables and other animal and fish cells."
The research was published in the journal Food Bioscience.