The technology enabled the researchers to replicate the complex tissue structures of Wagyu beef, including muscle, fat and blood vessel tissue, in order to achieve the meat’s unique marbling structure. The aim of the research was to create complex meat structures that truly replicate the structure, texture, and characteristics of individual meats, in order to address the various limitations of current cultured meat production techniques.
The researchers believe their work could also help to address the global increase in food demand, as well as mitigate the impact of contributing factors such as climate change, deforestation and ozone depletion.
“The technology from this research was developed to replicate the complex and beautiful marble structure seen in Japan’s world-renowned Wagyu beef,” said Professor Michiya Matsusaki of Osaka University. “We hope that cultured Wagyu steak meat becomes a new industry for Japan.”
Solving the ‘protein crisis’
With the world’s population expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050, the subsequent increase in food demand, alongside the impact of climate change, means it may not be possible to provide a sufficient supply of food. As such, the researchers believe the world could be faced with a so-called ‘protein crisis’, prompting greater interest in plant-based protein and cultured meat as alternative protein sources.
Research into cultured meat has been underway for some time, and 3D printing is playing an increasing role in aiding not only the research in this area, but also the commercial production of cultured meat products.
For instance, 3D printed food start-up Redefine Meat recently launched its first series of 3D printed ‘New-Meat’ products to selected restaurants and hotels in Israel, with the rollout planned to extend to Europe later this year, and to the US and Asia in 2022. Meanwhile, fellow food printing start-up SavorEat has teamed up with global hospitality firm Sodexo to pilot its Robot Chef 3D printing technology and first alt-meat product at US universities next year.
Elsewhere, food tech firm MeaTech has announced plans to enter chicken fat production during 2022 using the technologies gained from its acquisition of Peace of Meat, a developer of cultured fat products, last year.
3D printing Wagyu beef
The Osaka University and Toppan researchers sought to improve the structure of 3D printed meat, which they say has so far struggled to adequately replicate the texture and layers of real meat. Current research into 3D printed meat has produced structures consisting only of muscle fiber, they claim, giving it a mince-meat structure that fails to accurately recreate the specific characteristics of individual meats.
To address this, the team developed an original tissue modeling technology that used 3D bioprinting to develop tendon-like gels that could be assembled to fabricate a steak-like meat structure that was 10 mm long and 5 mm wide. The researchers’ technology, named tendon-gel-integrated bioprinting (TIP), enabled the fabrication of meat structures with different tissue make-ups, in order to more accurately replicate their real meat equivalents.
“To enable us to use 3D printing technology to stably produce muscle, fat, and blood vessel tissue, it was important to suppress the contraction that occurs during differentiation induction,” said Matsusaki. “Focusing on the fact that tendons support muscles in the body, we therefore produced ‘artificial tendon tissue’ using type I collagen, the main constituent of tendons. By then attaching each fibrous tissue to the artificial tendon tissue, it has become possible to stably create the fibrous tissues for production.”
To accurately reproduce commercial Wagyu beef, the researchers took a cross-sectional image of a Wagyu cut to produce a model pattern that showed the required number of muscle, fat, and blood capillary cell fibers needed, as well as their arrangement. The cell fibers were obtained via the TIP process and were then stacked in line with the model image, before being treated with transglutaminase, a common food cross-linking enzyme, to accelerate the assembly process.
The Wagyu beef structure was constructed from a total of 72 3D printed bovine cell fibers, including 42 muscle fibers, 28 adipose tissues, and two blood capillaries.
As the ratio of muscle, adipose tissues, and blood capillaries vary between different meat types, the researchers’ technology enables the different types of fibers to be 3D printed accordingly to accurately replicate their individual structures. For instance, Wagyu rump is made up of 10.7 percent adipose tissues, whereas Wagyu sirloin comprises 47.5 percent adipose tissues, which will have a significant impact on the texture and structure of both cuts.
Improving cultured meat production
According to the researchers, further improvement of their technology will not only make it possible to create complex meat structures that replicate the individual characteristics of different meat types and cuts, but also to control the fat and muscle content of cultured meat. Automated equipment for elements of the process other than 3D printing, such as cultivation, could also make it possible to produce cultured meat in any location.
As such, the researchers believe their technology could help to address the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) concerning environment preservations and resolving food crises. The research could also potentially help to negate the environmental destruction resulting from deforestation for the production of cereal grains needed for livestock farming, as well as ozone depletion caused by the CO2 emanating from livestock.
Additionally, producing cultured meat on-demand and in any location could have an energy-saving effect, as it can be created far quicker than the time it takes to grow cattle for slaughter.
Further information on the study can be found in the paper titled: “Engineered whole cut meat-like tissue by the assembly of cell fibers using tendon-gel integrated bioprinting,” published in the Nature Communications journal. The study is co-authored by D. Kang, F. Louis, H. Liu, H. Shimoda, Y. Nishiyama, H. Nozawa, M. Kakitani, D. Takagi, D. Kasa, E. Nagamori, S. Irie, S. Kitano, and M. Matsusaki.
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Featured image shows the manufacturing process and samples of cultured Wagyu beef produced using the 3D printing-based original tissue modeling technology. Image via Toppan.