BY MALIA SCHIMMINGER
CNHI NEWS SERVICE
Legos have been child’s play for almost a hundred years, but until recently, they had been used primarily to build houses and cars — never to grow scientifically engineered meat.
Hui Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State, remembers the first time her lab turned liquid starch into solid fiber nets like tiny napkins, known as electrospinning, in 2012. These tiny napkins are the first ingredient for growing meat.
Seven years later, having mastered the technique, she and Gregory Ziegler, a food engineer and Penn State professor, have developed an electrospinning mechanism using Legos.
The spinner consists of a handheld motor that sits outside a bowl. It is connected to a Lego gear, so when the motor turns the gear, a round Lego covered in metal sheeting spins around in water or alcohol, collecting and clotting the spun fibers. This process is known as wet electrospinning, Ziegler said.
He said Legos proved to be the ideal non-conductive building material because they were inexpensive and could be submerged in water without rusting.
Small quantities of unaligned fiber look like dried white paint. Because they are so small, these “nets,” known as scaffolding, cannot support much, he said.
Creating a spinner that controls where the fibers fall will allow Ziegler and Wang to spin the fibers into specific alignments, making them strong enough for practical purposes, such as the commercialization of lab-grown meat, they said.
Ziegler compares the fibers shooting onto the spinning cylinder to lightning hitting the ground – it is unpredictable. The ability to control these scattered bursts of fiber is his team’s current roadblock.
Spun into fiber, pure corn starch is a type of edible scaffolding. If produced in large enough and strong enough quantities, it can serve as the backbone for lab-grown meat, Ziegler said.
According to the Good Food Institute, scientifically engineered meat is also known as “clean meat” because it is more sanitary and environmentally friendly than meat from animals.
Spun starch fiber mats also replace their petroleum-based counterparts, which create non-degradable waste, said Wang.
According to its website, the Good Food Institute works with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs to promote “clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products.”
The Good Food Institute’s clean meat webpage says “Animal agriculture is unsustainable, environmentally harmful, bad for human health, and bad for animals.”
It explains that clean meat mitigates environmental degradation because it requires less land. Clean meat, according to the institute, will reduce global poverty because crops will not have to be grown to feed farm animals; with a smaller demand, the prices will be driven down.
The human health benefits of clean meat are often touted as its most important attribute. According to the Good Food Institute, 80 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to farm animals.
Because these animals are given consistent streams of antibiotics, they develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria and superbugs that can overpower standard antibiotics. Clean meat, on the other hand, does not require any antibiotics.
One of the biggest challenges facing food engineers like Ziegler and Wang is the large-scale commercialization of lab-grown meat. Now that they have mastered the spinning of pure corn starch fibers, they are looking for ways to increase the size of the spinning mechanisms, or bioreactors.
A bigger bioreactor would spin bigger pieces of fiber more quickly. Ziegler and Wang’s current technology would support about a one-square-inch piece of meat, but a larger bioreactor could spin the backbone needed to support a steak or T-bone.
When the first clean meat hamburger was grown in 2013, its creation cost a total of $330,000, Ziegler said. Organizations like the Good Food Institute help offset these costs.
One possible solution to the need for a bigger bioreactor is to use a 3-D printing machine instead of the Lego configuration, he said, but the challenge there is overcoming the electricity conducted by the metal machine.
To fix this problem, Ziegler and Wang have begun to 3-D print plastic pieces of the printer itself to reduce electrical interference.
The added benefit of using a 3-D printer to spin the starch is being able to control the pattern created by the spun fiber, Ziegler said.
Although Legos and pure corn starch are inexpensive, the cost of spinning fiber for lab-grown meat is hard to justify, even for its sustainability features, said Ziegler. For this reason, he and Wang are exploring biomedical applications for fiber scaffolding.
Growing scaffolding for the human body’s extracellular matrix, which determines how a tissue looks and functions, is one way the technology may advance in the medical field, he said.
Ziegler said the scaffolding is “just like potatoes,” and because the body has the enzymes to break down the starch fibers as food for growing cells, the integration of electrospun fibers would be natural.
Malia Schimminger is a Penn State student majoring in digital and print journalism.