In the last decade, lab-grown meat has emerged a sustainable alternative to traditional livestock methods. Livestock strain Earth's land resources and account for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But while scientists can grow thin sheets of cow meat and scrape it together to form a patty, people eat with their eyes as much as their mouths. For lab-grown meat to replace a fresh steak, it needs to look like a steak.
Growing lab-based meat into 3D structures is difficult because it needs constant delivery of oxygen and nutrients. In living organisms, vascular systems fill that need. Researchers at Boston College previously showed that skeletonized spinach leaves, stripped of everything but their veiny, oxygen-dispersing, vascular system, can support patches of heart muscle cells. Now, they show that lab-grown meat can grow on skeletonized spinach, an essential step to growing steak-shaped meat in the lab.
To skeletonize the spinach leaves, the scientists “decellularized” them, stripping away the greenery and leaving behind a translucent ghost of a leaf. Then, the scientists spread cow muscle cells on the ghostly leaves, like butter on fresh bread. After two weeks, the cells not only survived and multiplied, but also organized into long strands of muscle fiber. These long strands are the building blocks of steak — whether from a cow or from a spinach leaf.
Lab-grown meat is a technological solution to the environmental crisis. And while we need new and better technology (think, solar panels and battery storage) to change the course, the technology also needs to maximize environmental sustainability. Using spinach, which is in itself environmentally sustainable, doubles down on the sustainability of lab-grown meat.