It’s one thing to grow an amorphous blob of muscle or fat cells in a bioreactor—and another thing to recreate the structure of animal tissue. In order to make a complex product like a steak or a salmon fillet, cell-cultured meat producers need to provide their stem cells with a scaffold to grow on.
In nature, growing stem cells are housed within a structure of proteins and polysaccharides called the extracellular matrix. The cells’ interaction with this environment guides the way that they adhere, differentiate, and migrate.
Both cell-based meat manufacturers and business-to-business suppliers in the industry are experimenting with different scaffolding materials that can mimic the extracellular matrix. Below, we’ll discuss some scaffolding solutions and the startups that are exploring them.
You might notice that all of the materials we mention are animal-free—a significant development as alternative meat companies seek to reduce their dependence on animal inputs.
1. DaNAgreen is developing extracellular matrix stand-ins for both clinical and food applications. On its website, the South Korean startup describes Protinet™-P, its scaffolding product for cell-cultured meat manufacturing, as “a food that incubates food.” Protinet™-P scaffolds are completely edible, as they’re made from isolated plant proteins.
DanNAgreen currently offers its products in custom sizes and shapes. The company plans to spend the next few years scaling up production.
2. Seawith, a cell-cultured meat company also based in South Korea, is using algae-based scaffolds to grow its products. Along with being nutrient-rich, algae is relatively easy and inexpensive to grow. In The Spoon’s recent interview with Seawith, we learned that the company credits its algae scaffolding with the development of thicker cell-based steaks.
The company hopes to start selling its cell-cultured meat products to restaurants by 2023, though the team is awaiting regulatory decisions from the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
3. Excell is exploring the use of fungal mycelium as a scaffolding substrate. Mycelium contains the polymer chitin, which can be made to mimic some of the polysaccharides found in the natural extracellular matrix. Some fungi also have a meaty taste and texture, so it’s possible that mycelium-based substrates could enhance the sensory experience of eating cell-cultured meat.
Excell is currently offering mycelium scaffolding culture kits to researchers and product developers, and collecting feedback on how its products perform.
4. Matrix Meats of Ohio is approaching the challenge in a different way. The company uses an electrospinning technique to build nanofiber scaffolds. As FoodNavigator has reported, Matrix’s scaffolds can be made of a combination of different materials, which could allow cell-based meat producers to grow cultured muscles and fats together on a single structure.
Matrix works directly with cell-cultured meat startups to develop custom scaffolding solutions for their products. Client companies can control the scaffolding material, fiber size, and other factors.
These innovations with plant and fungi-based scaffolds could just be the start. Animal-derived collagen has been widely studied as a cellular scaffold material (which makes sense, as collagen is one of the proteins found in the natural extracellular matrix)—and it may be possible to make animal collagen scaffolds without using actual animals. Researchers have managed to produce animal collagen using gene-edited tobacco plants, and recombinant collagen produced by bacteria and yeast also look promising.
Advancements in animal-free scaffolding should help cell-cultured meat producers to cut costs and reduce their environmental impacts. (And this isn’t just a hypothetical: With its algae scaffold, DaNAgreen has been able to produce cell-based steaks at near price-parity with conventional products.) We’re likely to see much more innovation in the field as cell-cultured companies explore hybrid production options.