Grown Meat in Lab
Grown Meat in Lab

Grown Meat in Lab. People might one day grow meat in factories instead of having to harvest it from farmed animals. So far, attempts at lab-grown meat haven’t managed to match the texture of the animal muscles eaten as meat.

Researchers take inspiration from the cotton candy to make a gelatin scaffolding, which could help realize the dream of more sustainable steaks and chicken breasts.

Revolutionize Food.

Lab-grown or cultured meat could revolutionize food production, providing a greener, more sustainable, more ethical alternative to large-scale meat production. But getting lab-grown meat from the petri dish to the dinner plate requires solving several major problems, including how to make large amounts of it and how to make it feel and taste more like real meat.

Now, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have grown rabbit and cow muscles cells on edible gelatin scaffolds that mimic the texture and consistency of meat, demonstrating that realistic meat products may eventually be produced without the need to raise and slaughter animals.

The research is published in Nature Science of Food.

Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the study, began his foray into food after judging a competition show on the Food Network.

“The materials science expertise of the chefs was impressive,” said Parker. “After discussions with them, I began to wonder if we could apply all that we knew about regenerative medicine to the design of synthetic foods. 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. This is our first effort to bring hardcore engineering design and scalable manufacturing to the creation of food.”

Lab Bioengineering Meat.

Animal meat consists mostly of skeletal muscle (and fat tissue) which grow in long, thin fibers — as can be seen in the grain of a steak or when shredding pork or chicken. Reproducing these fibers is one of the biggest challenges in bioengineering 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 3D. It was important to find an efficient way to produce large amounts of these scaffolds to justify their potential use in food production.”

To overcome these challenges, the researchers used a technique developed by Parker and his Disease Biophysics Group known as immersion Rotary Jet-Spinning (iRJS), which uses centrifugal force to spin long nanofibers of specific shapes and sizes. The team spun food-safe gelatin fibers to form the base for growing cells.

Dreaming bigger than the petri dish

The team’s work is “a great step in the right direction,” says Kate Krueger. She’s a biochemist who was not involved in the new study. She works at New Harvest, a non-profit institute that funds food technology research, in Boston, Mass.

A burger made from lab-grown meat made a splash in 2013. But it came with the hefty price of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The way MacQueen’s team grew the tissue is “another imagination of how we could get there,” Krueger says. And it could be an easier, less costly way. Why? This approach to making a scaffold should be easier to scale up.

Another challenge: Because it’s meant for scientific research, the nutrient mixture that feeds cells in the lab uses high-purity ingredients. To grow meat for the masses, Krueger notes, the high cost of feeding cells will have to come down. 

Muscle-cell biologist Paul Mozdziak works at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. What the Harvard team has not done yet, he says, is “make something that’s really at the thickness or texture of a whole-muscle product.”

He is excited about using technology to grow meat. But Mozdziak also suggests caution about lab-grown meat’s prospects and impact. “Whether it’s good or not good for the environment is arguable,” he says. Especially if it just adds to the meat people already eat, he adds. Still, “what’s exciting is coming up with a new methodology to make food.”

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