March 31 (UPI) -- Scientists have successfully used the veiny skeleton of spinach leaves as an edible scaffolding on which to grow cultured meat.
In the lab, researchers stripped all the cells away from spinach leaves, leaving only the circulatory network as a platform for the growth of bovine animal protein.
"Cellular agriculture has the potential to produce meat that replicates the structure of traditionally grown meat while minimizing the land and water requirements," lead author Glenn Gaudette said in a news release.
"We demonstrate that decellularizing spinach leaves can be used as an edible scaffold to grow bovine muscle cells as they develop into meat," said Gaudette, a professor of engineering at Boston College.
The web-like patterns of natural circulatory systems are difficult to synthesize, but they are vital for lab-grown organs and meat. Previously, scientists used the circulatory network in spinach leaves to grow human heart tissue.
"In our previous work, we demonstrated that spinach leaves could be used to create heart muscle patches," said Gaudette. "Instead of using spinach to regrow replacement human parts, this latest project demonstrates that we can use spinach to grow meat."
After removing the leaf cells from the vascular network, lab scientists attached cow precursor meat cells and observed their growth.
The cells remained viable for two weeks, and differentiated into muscle tissue during that time.
"We need environmentally and ethically friendly ways to grow meat in order to feed the growing population," Gaudette said.
"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," he said.
Researchers said they are now working on ways to scale production of the spinach leaf scaffolding, and to boost the growth of bovine meat cells.
"We need to scale this up by growing more cells on the leaves to create a thicker steak," said Guadette. "In addition, we are looking at other vegetables and other animal and fish cells."