Lab-grown meat can be genetically enhanced with plant nutrients
Researchers from Tufts University have genetically engineered bovine cells to produce lab-grown beef containing beta-carotene, a plant nutrient that is converted into vitamin A in the human body. The researchers suggest lab-grown meats in the future could be nutritionally engineered to convey a broad assortment of health benefits.
Tens of millions of people around the world suffer from vitamin A deficiency. The nutritional shortcoming is a particular problem in children, with up to half a million losing their eyesight every year due to the deficiency.
In the 1990s food scientists genetically engineered a strain of rice by adding several beta-carotene genes. The rice was named "golden rice," and over the past couple of decades it became a flashpoint for debates over the safety of genetically modified food.
To date, only a few countries around the world have approved golden rice for public consumption, but scientists continued to experiment with ways of genetically manipulating fruits and vegetables to amplify their nutritional content. Most recently we have seen preliminary research into "golden potatoes" and "golden bananas."
The researchers from Tufts set out to investigate whether lab-grown meat could be nutritionally enhanced in the same way as golden rice.
Scientists and start-ups may be very close to getting lab-grown meat onto supermarket shelves, however, most research attention in the field has been focused on scaling up production and working out ways to replicate common products such as beef steaks and fried chicken.
"Cows don't have any of the genes for producing beta carotene," explains lead author on the new study, Andrew Stout. "We engineered cow muscle cells to produce this and other phytonutrients, which in turn allows us to impart those nutritional benefits directly onto a cultured meat product in a way that is likely infeasible through animal transgenics and conventional meat production."
The new research is simply a proof-of-concept, demonstrating how this kind of nutritional engineering can be effectively deployed on lab-grown meat. The study notes there are a huge assortment of potential applications for these kinds of additives to lab-grown meat. Not only are nutritional additions possible but therapeutic foods could hypothetically be produced with lab-grown meat spiked with medicines or compounds that can enhance drug absorption.
The new research also hypothesizes this kind of genetic engineering may reduce the carcinogenicity of meat. Stout says his team saw a decrease in lipid oxidation after cooking some of these "golden beef" cells.
"We saw a reduction in lipid oxidation levels when we cooked a small pellet of these cells when they were expressing and producing this beta carotene," says Stout. "Because that lipid oxidation is one of the key mechanistic proposals for red and processed meats' link to diseases such as colorectal cancer, I think that there is a pretty compelling argument to be made that this could potentially reduce that risk."
Corresponding author on the new study, David Kaplan, says there is still much work to be done before the general public will broadly accept these kinds of cultured meat products. Aside from public acceptance and regulatory hurdles, producing this kind of meat in affordable quantities is still a challenge, but Kaplan believes lab-grown meat with nutritional benefits may be an effective way to convince consumers to pay a little more for the product, at least at first.
"It will likely be challenging for cultured meat to be competitively priced with factory farmed meat right out of the gate," says Kaplan. "A value-added product which provides consumers with added health benefits may make them more willing to pay for a cultured meat product."
The new study was published in the journal Metabolic Engineering.