Scientists cultivate hybrid food by growing animal cells in rice grains

Korean scientists have developed a unique method of growing animal muscle and fat cells inside rice grains, resulting in a new hybrid food with immense potential. Presented in the journal Matter, this innovative approach could offer a more affordable and sustainable protein alternative to address the environmental and ethical challenges associated with industrial agriculture.

The research, conducted by first author Sohyeon Park under the guidance of corresponding author Jinkee Hong at Yonsei University, South Korea, introduces the concept of “cell-cultured beef rice.” By incorporating animal-derived cells into rice grains, the scientists aimed to enhance the nutritional value of this widely consumed staple.

“Imagine obtaining all the nutrients we need from cell-cultured protein rice,” says Sohyeon Park. “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.”

To create a suitable environment for the growth of cell-cultured meat, the team utilized the porous and structured nature of rice grains, which serve as solid scaffolds for the cells. Additionally, certain molecules present in rice facilitate the nourishment and growth of these cells, making rice an ideal platform for this innovative approach.

The process involved coating rice with fish gelatin, an edible ingredient that helps cells adhere to the grains more effectively. Cow muscle and fat stem cells were then introduced into the rice, which were left to culture in a petri dish for 9 to 11 days. The final product was a cell-cultured beef rice that fulfilled food safety requirements and posed a low risk of triggering food allergies.

The hybrid beef rice was carefully characterized through various food industry analyses, including nutritional value, odor, and texture. The findings revealed that the hybrid rice contained 8% more protein and 7% more fat than regular rice. In terms of texture, the hybrid rice exhibited a firmer and brittler consistency compared to the typical sticky and soft texture. The presence of different odor compounds corresponded to the muscle and fat content of the hybrid rice, with beef and almond-related compounds detected in the former, and cream, butter, and coconut oil compounds in the latter.

Livestock production is known for its significant resource consumption, water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. The team’s hybrid rice, however, boasts a remarkably smaller carbon footprint and is estimated to release less than 6.27 kg of CO2 for every 100 g of protein produced, compared to the 49.89 kg released by beef. Additionally, the cost of hybrid rice is projected to be around $2.23 per kilogram, while beef costs $14.88.

With its low food safety risks and relatively straightforward production process, the team is optimistic about the commercial viability of this innovative product. However, further research aims to improve the conditions within the rice grains to enhance the thriving of both muscle and fat cells, ultimately increasing the nutritional value of the hybrid rice.

“I didn’t expect the cells to grow so well in the rice,” says Park. “Now I 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.”