The veiny structure of a spinach leaf could be perfect for lab-grown meat

The future of lab-grown meat might depend on spinach leaves. Researchers have found a way to grow cultured meat cells on the veiny scaffolds provided by these salad greens—and they find that not only could the leaves make lab-grown products more realistically meat-like, but also altogether greener than many other alternatives.

In the laboratory setting, within a petri dish, that means scaffolds need to be structured to enable an even distribution of the growth medium in which cultured cells float, so that they all get an equal share of the nutrients and oxygen that will keep them alive. 

Previously, researchers have tried to do this using delicately 3D-printed scaffolds made out of gelatin, collagen, and other materials. But recently, spinach leaves have gained attention as an alternative, since they come with a ready-made filigreed structure that fairly closely mimics the vascular network of muscle tissue.

To expose this structure, the researchers on the new study ‘decellularized’ spinach leaves, using a treatment to strip them of their fleshy cells so that only the hardy veined network remained. Then they took muscle cells that had been isolated from cow flesh, placed them on the leafy scaffolds, and cultured them there. To compare the success of the spinach scaffolds, they also grew the cells on scaffolds made out of beef gelatin, a cultured-meat substrate that is already commonly used.  

The experiment revealed that after a week, and then two, the spinach-bound meat cells not only grew, and spread, but remained 98% viable. In fact, there was almost no difference in the growth and survival rate of the cells that were harvested on spinach leaves, and those cultured on the gelatin framework. This suggests that the leaf structure supports cell growth in a way that mimics muscle in nature: by enabling cells to grow in a dense but spaced out formation, the veiny network enables the flow of media evenly between cells, so that they don’t starve or become deoxygenated.

There’s still plenty more research to be done, for instance on how to successfully incorporate other cell types—like fatty cells that impart texture and flavor to meat—into the spinach leaf matrix. Another line of investigation is how to stack spinach leaves to create a scaffold that can mimic the density of something like a steak, the researchers say. 

Read the complete article at www.anthropocenemagazine.com.

Jordan D. Jones, Alex S. Rebello, Glenn R. Gaudette, Decellularized spinach: An edible scaffold for laboratory-grown meat, Food Bioscience, Volume 41, 2021, 100986, ISSN 2212-4292,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbio.2021.100986


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