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Bovine skeletal muscle cells grown in the presence of myoglobin (center) or hemoglobin (right)
Bovine skeletal muscle cells grown in the presence of myoglobin (center) or hemoglobin (right). Photo courtesy Robin Simsa & David Kaplan, Tufts University.


Cultured meat offers a multitude of environmental benefits but unless its taste and texture approach that of whole-muscle beef or chicken, the cell-based products are unlikely to achieve broad commercial success. Two recent research studies have addressed the sensory attributes of cultured meat.

A team of Tufts University-led researchers found that the addition of the iron-carrying protein myoglobin improves the growth, texture, and color of bovine muscle grown from cells in culture. Addition of either myoglobin or hemoglobin also led to a change of color more comparable to beef. The study, which was published in the journal FOODS, suggests that adding heme proteins to cell media may improve the color and texture of cell-grown meat.

“Taste, color, and texture will be critical to consumer acceptance of cultured meat,” said David Kaplan, professor at the Tufts University School of Engineering and corresponding author of the study. “If our goal is to make something similar to a steak, we need to find the right conditions for cells to grow that replicate the formation of natural muscle. The addition of myoglobin looks to be one more important addition to the recipe that brings us closer to that goal.”

“We knew that myoglobin has an important role to play in muscle growth, as it is one of the most abundant proteins in muscle cells,” said first author of the study Robin Simsa. “It’s possible that myoglobin is bringing oxygen to the cell’s mitochondria, boosting their energy and helping them to proliferate. More than just an ingredient for color, iron content, and potentially flavor, myoglobin could also be an important element in the scaled-up production of cell-based meat to increase cell yield.”

At the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), researchers have grown rabbit and cow muscle cells on edible gelatin scaffolds that mimic the texture and consistency of meat, demonstrating that realistic meat products may eventually be produced without the need to raise and slaughter animals. Their research was published in the journal npj Science of Food.

Animal meat consists mostly of skeletal muscle (and fat tissue) that grow in long, thin fibers, such as can be seen in the grain of a steak or when shredding pork or chicken. Reproducing these fibers is one of the biggest challenges in bioengineering meat.

“Muscle cells are adherent cell types, meaning they need something to hold onto as they grow,” said Luke Macqueen, first author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. “To grow muscle tissues that resembled meat, we needed to find a ‘scaffold’ material that was edible and allowed muscle cells to attach and grow in 3-D. It was important to find an efficient way to produce large amounts of these scaffolds to justify their potential use in food production.” To overcome these challenges, the researchers used a technique by fellow scientists called immersion Rotary Jet-Spinning (iRJS), which employs centrifugal force to spin long nanofibers of specific shapes and sizes. The team spun food-safe gelatin fibers to form the base for growing cells. The fibers mimic natural muscle tissue’s extracellular matrix—the glue that holds the tissue together and contributes to its texture.

The team seeded the fibers with rabbit and cow muscle cells, which anchored to the gelatin and grow in long, thin structures, similar to real meat. The researchers used mechanical testing to compare the texture of their lab-grown meat to real rabbit, bacon, beef tenderloin, prosciutto, and other meat products.

“When we analyzed the microstructure and texture, we found that, although the cultured and natural products had comparable texture, natural meat contained more muscle fibers, meaning they were more mature,” said Macqueen. “Muscle and fat cell maturation in vitro are still a really big challenge that will take a combination of advanced stem cell sources, serum-free culture media formulations, edible scaffolds such as ours, as well as advances in bioreactor culture methods to overcome.”

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