With the global population on the rise, environmental stressors, particularly in food production, continue to escalate. One major challenge lies in the extensive resources required for livestock cultivation. In a pioneering move, Korean scientists have introduced a novel solution—lab-cultured meat embedded within grains of rice.

Led by biomolecular engineer Sohyeon Park from Yonsei University, the research team has created a unique hybrid food that incorporates cells of bovine fat and muscle grown within rice grains. The resulting product resembles a peculiar blend of meat mince and rice, presenting as pink, sticky grains. Despite being currently labor-intensive to produce, the innovation holds promise in alleviating food production pressure.

Park envisions a future where essential nutrients are derived from cell-cultured protein rice, stating, “Rice already has a high nutrient level, but adding cells from livestock can further boost it.” Recognizing that rice is 80 percent starch with the remaining 20 percent being protein and other nutrients, the researchers explored ways to enhance its nutritional value.

In a biological context, cells require a scaffolding for tissue development, commonly provided by an artificial matrix in laboratory settings. Leveraging the porous nature of rice, the researchers coated the grains with food-grade fish gelatin and food enzymes to serve as a scaffold. Cow muscle and fat stem cells were then seeded onto the rice grains and allowed to grow in a petri dish for 9 to 11 days.

The hybrid rice exhibited increased firmness and brittleness compared to regular rice. More importantly, the nutritional profile showed a significant boost, with 8 percent more protein and 7 percent more fat than untreated rice. This makes the meaty-rice hybrid potentially more cost-effective to produce than traditional beef, both in terms of emissions and monetary value.

The team calculated that hybrid rice production emits 6.27 kilograms of carbon dioxide per 100 grams of protein, significantly lower than the 49.89 kilograms released by beef. Additionally, the cost to consumers is estimated to be around 15 percent of the price of beef per kilogram.

Beyond nutritional benefits, the flavor profile of the rice has been enhanced with distinct odor compounds from the added beef muscle and fat. The researchers now aim to streamline the production process, reducing the time required for hybrid rice development. They also plan to experiment with optimizing the uptake of cellular material into rice grains, which have proven remarkably receptive to the process.

Park envisions diverse applications for this grain-based hybrid food, ranging from addressing food shortages during famines to serving as military rations or even being considered for space food in the future.

By Impact Lab