Researchers have taken a major step towards ‘fake meat’ without ever needing to raise or slaughter animals.
With vegetarianism and veganism on the rise as people become more conscious of their food choices in a world rocked by a climate emergency, researchers and companies are working to develop so-called ‘fake meat’.
While some are already on the market, trying to replicate the likes of beef exactly is a lot more challenging. Now, researchers from the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have published a study to Nature Science of Food detailing a new breakthrough that brings us a step closer to meat without ever involving an animal.
The researchers successfully grew rabbit and cow muscle cells on edible gelatine scaffolds that closely mimic the texture and consistency of meat, based on science’s understanding of regenerative medicine.
“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,” said Kevin Kit Parker, senior author of the study.
“This is our first effort to bring hardcore engineering design and scalable manufacturing to the creation of food.”
The biggest challenge for creating fake meat, Parker said, is in replicating the skeletal muscle and fat tissue of animals, which grow in long, thin fibres. In order for muscle cells to develop, they need something to grow onto.
Brewing up some meat
This led the team developing its own ‘scaffold’ material that was both edible and allowed the muscle cells to attach and grow in 3D. This was achieved using a technique known as immersion rotary jet spinning (iRJS), which uses centrifugal force to spin long nanofibers of specific shapes and sizes.
Gelatine fibres were spun to form the base of the cells, with the grown muscle tissue forming an extracellular matrix, very similar to that found in rabbit and cows.
Luke MacQueen, first author of the study, said that while significantly promising, analysis of the muscle cells’ microstructure and texture showed that natural meat still contains more muscle fibres.
“Muscle and fat cell maturation in vitro are still a really big challenge that will take a combination of advanced stem cell sources, serum-free culture media formulations, edible scaffolds such as ours, as well as advances in bioreactor culture methods to overcome,” he said.
“Our methods are always improving and we have clear objectives because our design rules are informed by natural meats. Eventually, we think it may be possible to design meats with defined textures, tastes and nutritional profiles – a bit like brewing.”