Harvard scientists have engineered a structural innovation in lab-grown meat that gives it a more palatable, realistic texture, according to a paper published in Science of Food last week.
Led by bioengineering research associate Luke A. MacQueen, the team induced cow and rabbit muscle cells to grow on gelatin scaffolds, which lend the product a fibrous “mouth-feel” characteristic of meat. By contrast, the previous method available — which McQueen described as growing an unstructured “pile of cells” — deprives the consumer of a “tender” texture.
MacQueen said the technique used to construct the edible scaffolds was “inspired by a cotton candy machine.”
“We're making something that you could consider a bit to be like protein fibers — so protein candy, or protein fluff,” he said. “In this paper, we use gelatin because it's a natural part of tissues. And when we make scaffolds based on it, the cells love it, and they crawl inside and organize into tissue that looks and feels a lot like meat.”
Postdoctoral research fellow Christophe O. Chantre, who co-authored the study, said that while alternative meat products like the Impossible Burger are currently “wildly popular,” he believes lab-grown meat is on the cusp of exploding in popularity.
“I think this is really going to become actually a big part of our market of meat as we move forward in the next couple decades,” he said. “And it has these added benefits that it uses a lot less resources and eliminates cruel animal treatments.”
MacQueen said such ethical implications motivated him throughout the project.
“I like meat a lot, and I like animals a lot, so if I got to have my meat without killing them, then I would,” he said. “I would be a consumer of this product.”
He added that in the future, scientists may be able to use the technique to create a wide range of commercial products.
“Because our scaffold can kind of accept any type of cell, there's a lot of interesting possible tissues for us to make,” he said. “A chicken breast or a piece of shrimp or steak or a liver — all of those are things that we could make.”
The team is working with Harvard’s Office of Technology Development to protect its intellectual property and liaise with potential commercial partners.
Chantre said that though the study was simply a “proof of concept” and did not attempt to optimize the economic efficiency of its product, the high price of lab-grown meat would likely be “a major concern” if the new product goes on the market.
“I think the cost is definitely something that will be addressed with scale,” Chantre said.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.