Meat-rice? Could be nice!

BioTechniques News
Beatrice Bowlby

Researchers successfully generate hybrid ‘meat-rice’ by culturing animal cells in rice grains, increasing the nutritional value of rice.

In a step towards more sustainable sources of protein and a new class of relief foods for emergencies such as famine, a Korean research effort led by Jinkee Hong of Yonsei University (Seoul, Korea) has created hybrid ‘meat-rice’. The team used cell culture methods to grow animal cells inside grains of rice, boosting their nutritional value.

Globally, our demand for food is rising at a pace that traditional agriculture is struggling to keep up with. A key factor in this challenge is the high demand for protein in human diets, a large portion of which is met by farming animals to produce meat products. This is an inefficient process that claims vast swathes of land, resources and energy.

While there are numerous sources of plant-based protein that are able to meet the foundational nutritional requirements of the human diet when properly balanced, some nutrients are found only in animal products. To create an efficient food source with increased protein content and animal nutrients, Hong and his team set out to create a nutrient-rich food using rice as a 3D cell culture medium.

Grains of rice are porous, with organized structures and some of the nutrients required for animal cells to survive and proliferate. These properties allow them to act as a cellular scaffold within which cells can divide and grow. To optimize the grains for cell seeding, they were first coated with fish gelatin, an edible ingredient cheaper than mammal gelatin, to help the cells anneal to the rice scaffolds. Bovine myoblasts and adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells were then seeded into the rice and left to culture for 9–11 days.

After this period, the team steamed the rice and performed a series of food industry analyses to determine the structure, nutritional value and safety profile of the meat-rice. These involved Micro-CT imaging to characterize the structural integrity of the meat-rice and chemical digestion and titration to determine factors such as protein quantity.

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The team found that the rice had a modest 8% increase in protein quantity, equal to an increase of 310 mg per 100 g, 10 mg more fat and 160 mg more carbohydrate. The meat-rice was firmer and more brittle, and odor tests revealed that grains with higher muscle content had odor compounds associated with beef and almond, while grains with mostly fat cells had compounds associated with cream, butter and coconut oil.

While the increase in protein is undeniably small, the team noted that at this stage these results are indicative of the potential of this technology and that further research could lead to the development of more nutritious crops. However, the current impact is far from negligible. The process has a small carbon footprint and is cheap. For every 100 g of protein produced by meat-rice, 6.27 kg of CO2 is produced compared to the 49.89 kg released by the generation of the same amount of protein from beef.

What’s more, if commercialized, the team believe the meat-rice could be produced at just $2.23 per kg vs $14.88 per kg for beef. Coupled with rice’s low allergenic potential and high safety profile, the team believes this product could be hugely useful for humanity. Study first author Sohyeon Park expanded on its possibilities, commenting that they could now see “a world of possibilities for this grain-based hybrid food. It could one day serve as food relief for famine, military ration, or even space food.”

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