What does it take to make a perfectly marbled steak without killing a cow? Ask Dr. Amy Rowat.
GFI research grant recipient Dr. Rowat is building micro-scaffolds to create the marbling in beef cultivated directly from cells. Her goal is to help perfect the texture and flavor of cultivated beef by creating striations of fat and muscle tissue. Dr. Rowat’s work aims not only to help develop premium quality cultivated meat but to establish a scalable production method. One of the best parts? The scaffolds are made out of plant-based materials, keeping environmental impact low.
Dr. Rowat discussed her catalytic research at the Good Food Conference. (Check out her panel!) And she took a deep dive into the world of fat marbling and cultivated beef in our exclusive Q&A below.
What sparked your interest in researching cultivated meat?
Our research in the cultivated meat field was the perfect marriage between my lab’s expertise in cellular mechanobiology and using food as materials. It is an exciting opportunity to contribute to the urgent need for sustainable methods for food production.
What is the goal of your research?
Our goal is to engineer cultivated beef with a desirable texture and flavor by marbling—or interspersing fat—throughout the cultured muscle. While marbling is critical for meat texture and flavor, current methods are not scalable. Our approach will generate scaffolds to support the culture of fat and muscle cells. To ensure that our scaffolds are biocompatible and have a minimal environmental impact, we will use the plant-based hydrogels alginate (found in the cell walls of brown algae) and pectin (present in the cell walls of plants on land). Our findings will create tunable textures of cultivated meat with varying fat contents. The hope is to significantly improve the texture and flavor of cultivated meat.
What is the desired ratio of meat to fat in marbled beef?
We take inspiration from the esteemed Kobe or Hanwoo beef (high-quality cuts of Japanese and Korean meat, respectively). Their fat to meat ratios range from 5 to 25% (by weight). We are aiming for this range to create an ideal texture and flavor.
How could scaffolds be used to produce marbled cultivated meat?
The aim is to culture muscle cells together with fat cells, which is notoriously challenging. Creating composite scaffolds, with different regions desirable for each cell type, can support the production of marbled cultivated meat. We will create a scaffold that has regions with different stiffness. It can support the growth of both myocytes (precursors of muscle cells) and adipocytes (fat cells).
How do you create a scaffold small enough for cells to grow on?
To create very thin fibers (think about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair), we can flow a solution of the fiber-forming molecules through a small orifice. When we also apply an electric field, the molecules are forced into an even thinner geometry. These fibers are desirable in tissue engineering due to their ability to mimic the cell’s natural extracellular environment.
Are the scaffolds developed in this project capable of supporting other types of cultivated meat? If so, which would be most suitable?
We anticipate that the scaffolds we develop can be adapted to support other types of cultivated meat. Fish—such as salmon—similarly has intramuscular fat, so this could be a natural target. The ability to tune the spatial organization and stiffness of our scaffolds should enable us to adapt them to different cell types.
Dr. Rowat’s research has the potential to advance the entire cultivated meat industry. We are honored to support this work through GFI’s Competitive Grant Program.