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Spinach leaves could support growth of lab beef

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers from Boston College have demonstrated for the first time that the veiny skeleton of a spinach leaf can support the growth of artificial meat.

Unlike plant-based meat alternatives, synthetic meat is growth from a culture of animal cells using tissue engineering techniques to mimic the structure and quality of slaughtered meat.

A key part of the process is developing a scaffold, mimicking the in vivo extracellular matrix, for the cells to organise into larger structures. The ideal scaffold is porous, edible, inexpensive, and encourages formation of structures imitating circulatory networks. Spinach ticks many of these boxes, offering a inexpensive and environmentally-friendly possibility.

“Cellular agriculture has the potential to produce meat that replicates the structure of traditionally grown meat while minimising the land and water requirements,” said Professor Glenn Gaudette, who led the Boston College study. “We demonstrate that decellularizing spinach leaves can be used as an edible scaffold to grow bovine muscle cells as they develop into meat.”

Previously, Gaudette had demonstrated that human heart tissue can be cultivated on a spinach leaf scaffold. Spinach was chosen because it offers a natural circulatory system which is nearly impossible to recreate with the tools and techniques currently available to scientists.

“In our previous work, we demonstrated that spinach leaves could be used to create heart muscle patches. Instead of using spinach leaves to regrow replacement human parts, this latest project demonstrates that we can use spinach to grow meat,” he said.

Gaudette and his colleagues removed the plant cells from the leaf, leaving just its veiny skeleton. They used the remining circularity network as an edible substrate for growing isolated cow precursor meat cells. The cells remained viable for up to 14 days, and differentiated into muscle mass.

The results will lead to further characterisation of the materials and scientific processes of cultivating meat in the laboratory, potentially helping boost production of cultivated meat products to the point that it can be priced competitively for mass consumption. There is considerable interest in cultivated meat from consumers and investors – partly due to environmental and animal welfare concerns – although it remains a luxury product. Singapore approved lab-grown chicken meat in December, allowing cultivated meat to go on sale for the first time.

“We need environmentally and ethically friendly ways to grow meat in order to feed the growing population,” said Gaudette. “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 on to something in order to grow. In the lab, we can use plastic tissue culture plates, but plastic is not edible.

“We need to scale this up by growing more cells on the leaves to create a thicker steak. In addition, we are looking at other vegetables and other animal and fish cells.”

Last year, Israeli scientists unveiled a promising bovine meat scaffold based on textured soy protein.

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