Rice grains covered with lab-grown cow cells could serve as a novel food ingredient for a sustainable food system. Researchers from Yonsei University in South Korea coated rice grains with fish gelatin and food-grade enzymes as a scaffold for bovine myoblasts and adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells (adMSCs) to synthesize nutrient-dense grains containing organized meat cells. The strategy and findings of this study provide feasible ideas for developing various types of cell-based future foods.

The research article, “Rice grains integrated with animal cells: A shortcut to a sustainable food system,” was published in Matter.

Beefed up future foods

As long as humans continue to exist, we will need to find ways to feed ourselves in the future. One promising area is hybrid foods, which combine vegetable and animal ingredients. Microcarriers derived from eggshell membranes, scaffolds manufactured from 3D-printed Prolamin, and gellan gum and gelatin are among the fascinating scaffolds utilized in hybrid meat.

A soy- or nut-based scaffold, like textured vegetable protein, to culture cell-free meat is a common example of a hybrid protein food. Notably, textured vegetable protein cultured meat in Singapore is available for purchase. Scaffolds made from nuts and soy, however, are common allergens, and because these scaffolds can only support a minimal amount of cells, many additives are used to flavor the meat.

Among rice’s many nutrients and minerals are functional components like folic acid and glutelin, which are essential for the proper functioning of skeletal muscle cells’ metabolic processes. The rice grain can nourish and promote the proliferation of cells in a cell culture environment. Rice grains are perfect for storing animal cells because of their blocklet packing structure, which provides a porous and organized volume with a large surface area. In addition, the semi-crystalline and crystalline cross-structures of the grains can guide cell adhesion and growth as required.

Based on the idea that rice grains’ nutritional and structural properties have great potential as 3D cell scaffolds, lead author Sohyeon Park and colleagues created a new food ingredient combining rice grains, nanocoating, and animal cells. They coated them with edible fish gelatin and food-grade enzymes to make the rice grains more stable and improve their cell adhesion. This allowed the grains to act as long-lasting 3D scaffolds for cell culture. To create nutrient-dense grains with organized cells, the coated grains were used as a platform for bovine myoblasts and adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells (adMSCs) to proliferate and differentiate. 

Although the coating material used by the researchers was fish gelatin, which is non-mammalian and closest to the extracellular matrix (ECM), any number of environmentally friendly substances with strong cell affinity could be employed. Results from this study provide promising directions for developing future hybrid food products.

Green hoof-print

If Park and colleagues are correct, producing beef-laced rice grains could be a sustainable way to get a nutritious ingredient. According to the researchers, estimates put the amount of carbon dioxide gas produced by 100 g of beef at 49.89 kg and 100 g of rice at 6.27 kg. Using the presumption of a cell line and a culture medium free of components derived from mammals, the researchers calculate that producing 100 g of protein from hybrid rice will produce less than 6.27 kg of COemissions.

The production time is another possible selling point. Beef usually takes one to three years, compared to rice’s 95 to 250 day production time. According to this research, the time required to organize rice cells was 9.75 days, and the time required to produce hybrid rice was 104.75–259.75 days. Cost has been a big problem when it comes to making cell-cultured meat. While lean beef sells for $14.88/kg and rice for $2.2/kg on the market, cell-cultured meat has an exorbitantly high wholesale price tag of at least $63/kg. Based on their calculations, the researchers have determined that hybrid rice can be sold for around $2.23/kg.

So, in theory, hybrid rice can significantly reduce the problem of CO2 generation and reach consumers with reasonable nutrition and prices. There are many scenarios in which the hybrid food system would provide critical advantages to traditional foods and ingredients. Notably, hybrid beef-rice could be developed as relief food in response to emergencies, in underdeveloped countries, during war, and in space.

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