Meat made from spinach? Scientists use leafy skeleton to make lab-grown beef

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Does the future of meat production currently sit in the produce aisle of your local supermarket? As scientists look for more sustainable and ethical ways to satisfy meat eaters, lab-grown products are becoming a popular alternative. So what’s the best way to grow a fresh cut of beef? Researchers in Massachusetts say spinach isn’t just a great steak side dish, it’s perfect for growing them in labs too!

Their study finds spinach leaves provide a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly scaffold to grow meat cells on. Boston College engineer Glenn Gaudette says the discovery of an edible platform may help speed up the development of cultured meats.

When scientists strip spinach of everything but its veiny skeleton, the leaf’s circulatory network serves as an edible skeleton for the new lab-grown bovine protein. Gaudette adds this process may help reduce the burden on resources which go into meeting growing demands for meat worldwide.

“Cellular agriculture has the potential to produce meat that replicates the structure of traditionally grown meat while minimizing the land and water requirements,” the lead study author says in a media release. “We demonstrate that decellularizing spinach leaves can be used as an edible scaffold to grow bovine muscle cells as they develop into meat.”

From growing hearts to growing beef

This isn’t the first time Gaudette and engineers have used spinach to grow meatier products. In 2017, scientists demonstrated they could create human heart tissue using a spinach leaf scaffold. Researchers chose the leafy greens because of its natural circulatory system which is nearly impossible to replicate using lab tools.

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

This diagram shows the steps Boston College and WPI researchers took to isolate and seed primary bovine satellite cells on a decellularized spinach leaf scaffold. (Credit:
Food Bioscience

In the new experiment, Gaudette and researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute started by removing the plant cells from each spinach leaf. The team then used the remaining framework to grow cow precursor meat cells. Researchers add the cells remained viable for two weeks and also differentiated into muscle mass.

“We need environmentally and ethically friendly ways to grow meat in order to feed the growing population,” Gaudette explains. “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.”

Study authors say the success of their project provides the blueprint for safely creating cultured meats on a grand scale.

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

The study appears in the journal Food BioScience.

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