As of now, cultured meat comes out looking one way: like mush. That’s because scientists have figured out ways to replicate animal muscle, fat, and tissue cells, but not how to make them grow to make fibers. In short, we can grow a hamburger, but not something like a steak, which requires a more solid physical form.
But scientists are working to change this, developing scaffolding technology to help those muscle cells grow in formations that would mimic the chew of pork chops, chicken strips, and, of course, steak.
Most recently — and most exciting to my inner five-year-old — is the LEGO method. Researchers from Penn State have developed a new technique to spin cornstarch fibers into an edible scaffold using LEGO pieces. The scaffold could then, at least theoretically, be used to grow cultured meat.
According to Dr. Gregory Ziegler, a food science professor at Penn State who’s been working on the project, to make the scaffold they use a technique called “electrospinning,” where scientists apply electricity to an edible starch solution as it dispenses from a nozzle, creating long threads that adhere to a LEGO “mat”. Ziegler told me that they chose to use LEGO pieces because they’re cheap and also plastic, so they don’t conduct electricity.
They’ve been developing the technique for five years but only recently figured out how to align the aforementioned threads to make longer fibers. Now they’re starting to look into applications for the technology — including lab-grown meat.
They haven’t actually tried growing any sort of meat on these electrospun scaffolds. Yet. Ziegler said the next step is to get more funding so they can try and efficiently scale scaffolding production to lower the cost of the technology. Eventually Ziegler plans that scaffolds will be made with some material other than LEGOs (sorry). They then want to execute some tests to see if the scaffolds are indeed as useful for cultured meat as Ziegler predicts they will be.
Ziegler’s method might be eye-catching, but he’s far from the only one trying to develop scaffolds for cell-based meat. In fact, scientists are experimenting with all manner of materials to try and make an edible ground for cellular agriculture.
One popular material is plants. By emptying plants of all their living material and leaving a sort of husk of cell walls, scientists can use their structure as a natural (and edible) blueprint for animal tissue. Worcester Polytechnic Institute is experimenting with spinach leaves as a scaffold for tissue growth (see above), and others are trying jackfruit and artichokes.
Fungi are also a natural fit. Startup Ecovative has developed a foam-like substance made out of mycelium, or delicate mushroom roots. Ecovative’s mushroom scaffolds can be grown in only 9 days and are tender enough to eat. They won’t dissolve, however, which could affect the overall flavor and texture of the end product.
Still, scaffolding isn’t the only way to create texture with cultured meat. Some companies are looking into 3D printing as a method to form “steaks” and more with animal tissue cells.
Of course, this technology is kind of moot until cell-based meat companies figure out how to clear those pesky regulatory hurdles and finally get the stuff to market. But as cultured meat becomes more widely available, and more affordable, consumer acceptance is going to play a larger and larger role. And it’ll be a lot easier to get the hardcore carnivores on board if they can try a cell-based steak that actually tastes — and chews — like the real thing.