During a recent study, a team of researchers grew meat cells on an edible platform made of spinach. They believe experiments like these could accelerate the development of cultured meat.
The research, led by Glenn Gaudette, a professor at Boston College, was published in the advanced online edition of the journal Food BioScience. The results may help increase the production of cellular agriculture products to meet rising demand and reduce environmental costs.
Stripped of all but its veiny skeleton, the circulatory network of a spinach leaf successfully served as an edible soil-like base upon which the researchers grew bovine animal protein, said Gaudette.
"Cellular agriculture has the potential to produce meat that replicates the structure of traditionally grown meat while minimising the land and water requirements," says Gaudette.
Earlier studies by Gaudette in this area garnered worldwide attention. In 2017, Gaudette and a multi-university team had shown that human heart tissue could be cultivated on a spinach leaf scaffold, which was chosen because it offered a natural circulatory system that is nearly impossible to replicate with available scientific tools and techniques.
"In our previous work, we demonstrated that spinach leaves could be used to create heart muscle patches," said Gaudette. "Instead of using spinach to regrow replacement human parts, this latest project demonstrates that we can use spinach to grow meat."
Gaudette said the team, which included Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate students Jordan Jones and Alex Rebello, removed the plant cells from the spinach leaf and used the remaining vascular framework to grow isolated cow precursor meat cells. The cells remained viable for up to 14 days and differentiated into muscle mass.
"We need environment-friendly and ethical ways to grow meat in order to feed the growing population," said Gaudette, whose research is supported by New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute that supports cultured meat research. "We set out to see if we can use an edible scaffold to accomplish this. Muscle cells are anchorage-dependent, meaning they need to grab onto something in order to grow. In the lab, we can use plastic tissue culture plates, but plastic is not edible."
The researchers point out that successful results will lead to a better understanding of how to meet consumer demand and gauge how large-scale production could be accomplished by following health and safety guidelines.
"We need to scale this up by growing more cells on the leaves to create a thicker steak," said Guadette. "In addition, we are looking at other vegetables and other animal and fish cells."
The story has been lightly edited for style.