Researchers at Harvard University's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) department were able to grow rabbit and cow muscle cells on edible gelatin 'scaffolds.'
The structures allowed cells to grow in a way that realistically mimicked the texture and consistency of meat. A future of real-tasting lab-grown produce, which eliminates the need for killing animals, may soon be possible.
Synthetic foods and regenerative medicine
The new work, published in Nature Science of Food, has researcher Kit Parker, who is the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at SEAS, as a senior author.
It outlines a step towards more realistic lab-grown meats that could help the planet — by reducing the carbon footprint of the food industry — as well as human health.
"I began to wonder if we could apply all that we knew about regenerative medicine to the design of synthetic foods," Parker said in a press release.
"After all, everything we have learned about building organs and tissues for regenerative medicine applies to food: healthy cells and healthy scaffolds are the building substrates, the design rules are the same, and the goals are the same: human health."
The challenges in bioengineering meat
The issue with lab-grown fake meats? Animal meat consists mainly of complex skeletal muscle. Recreating these fibers is one of the hardest problems in bio-engineering meat.
"Muscle cells are adherent cell types, meaning they need something to hold onto as they grow," said Luke Macqueen, first author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and the Wyss Institute for Bioinspired Engineering.
"To grow muscle tissues that resembled meat, we needed to find a 'scaffold' material that was edible and allowed muscle cells to attach and grow in 3-D."
Hardcore engineering in the creation of food
To overcome these challenges, the team of scientists developed a technique known as immersion Rotary Jet-Spinning (iRJS).
This uses centrifugal force to spin long nanofibers of predetermined shapes and measurements.
Using this method, the researchers made gelatin fibers that were safe to eat. These formed the 'scaffold' material that holds the tissue together and allows for a more realistic texture.
"This is our first effort to bring hardcore engineering design and scalable manufacturing to the creation of food," Parker said.
The researchers believe it might eventually be possible to create different meats with specific textures and consistencies that could closely resemble the flesh of different types of animals.
This would be an excellent step for the lab-grown meat industry, and it potentially signals a sea-change in the way food is consumed.