Using 3D printing, researchers are developing the famous Japanese-style Wagyu beef – without the cruelty and planetary destruction.

Wagyu, a style of Japanese beef renowned for marbled texture and delectable, melt-in-the-mouth flavour, is produced from carefully raised cattle that roam in open paddocks. A team of researchers in Japan has now set its sights on replicating this meat in the lab using stem cells and three-dimensional (3D) printing, and they are teaming up with two companies to commercialize the technology. This unique research seeks to reproduce wagyu’s complex structure.

Addressing the impending protein crisis

Meat is increasingly becoming a luxury the world can’t afford. A growing global population, and a rising demand for meat in developing countries, have caused a five-fold increase in consumption over the last five decades. The demand shows no signs of abating, and is expected to lead to a protein crisis in around 2050. A collaboration between Osaka University, Shimadzu Corporation and SIGMAXYZ Inc. has set itself the ambitious goal of artificially producing wagyu using stem cells and 3D printing technology.

“To secure more meat for the world’s population, more forests will have to be cleared to create pastures for livestock,” explains Michiya Matsusaki, a professor at the Graduate School of Engineering at Osaka University. “Artificially producing meat by culturing cells is an attractive way to eliminate this need for deforestation and reduce the burden on the environment.” He also notes the method would also help reduce greenhouse gases since cattle are the greatest agricultural source of methane.

Matsusaki’s team has been investigating how stem cells taken from wagyu cattle can be cultured, and assembled using a 3D printer to make a meat alternative of muscle, fat, and blood vessels whose arrangement closely resembles that of conventional steaks. In 2021, they succeeded in making a cylinder that was 5 millimetres in diameter and 10 millimetres long made up of muscles, adipose tissues and blood capillaries.

Recreating the structure of wagyu

While other groups have produced artificial meat in the laboratory before, what sets this achievement apart is the internal structure that mimics the marbled structure of wagyu. The researchers achieved this by producing the three types of tissue from two kinds of stem cells (bovine satellite cells and adipose-derived stem cells) and then using a 3D printer to lay the tissues down in an arrangement replicating real wagyu. This process made it possible to reconstruct the complex structure of meat in a customizable way.

“There are many ways to produce cultured meat, but most methods involve producing a lot of muscle cells, mincing them, and then grilling them into hamburgers,” says Matsusaki. “We chose to make wagyu beef because it is delicious, and because we think it is important to prove that it is possible to produce high-quality meat.”

The impending protein crisis adds a sense of urgency to this endeavour. “People are beginning to wonder if the time will soon come when we will no longer be able to eat grilled meat,” adds Matsusaki.

Combining forces to make wagyu

To help address the challenge, Matsusaki’s team has teamed up with two Japanese companies: Shimadzu Corporation, a manufacturer of analytical and measuring instruments, and SIGMAXYZ Inc., a consulting company that has strength in bringing together academic researchers, venture companies and major firms in order to tackle social issues that are too complex for one party to solve alone. It was SIGMAXYZ who brought Osaka University and Shimadzu together, recognizing that Shimadzu’s expertise in automated and analytic systems was essential for building an automated system for producing custom-made cultured meats based on 3D bioprinting technology.

A healthier cut of meat

Synthetic wagyu is not only good for the environment, it also offers health benefits since meat can be tailored made to meet the individual nutritional requirements. “It’s hard to get meat with a precise fat content, but we can produce meat with a very controlled fat content, which is another advantage of this fabrication method,” says Matsusaki. Shinya Kirihara, director of SIGMAXYZ concurs: “You can design beef to meet both your nutritional needs and your taste. If we can design meat that satisfies both these criteria, it could be a revolution in food.”

“People love eating Japanese grilled meat, for example, but its high fat content means it’s not good for their health,” says Masami Tomita, a deputy general manager of Analytical and Measuring Instruments Division at Shimadzu. “But if we can make custom-designed meat that might be fortified with vitamins or calcium, we could make meat that is healthier to eat in the future without sacrificing taste.”

Ensuring a tasty steak

A big question about artificial meats is how they’ll taste compared with the natural product. But the team is confident that they will be able to get close to the taste and texture of wagyu using their method. Using Shimadzu’s analytical instruments and testing machines, they will evaluate the components that impart flavour, and assess texture. By tweaking the manufacturing process, it will be possible to tailor the product to people’s tastes.

Other advantages and applications of the technology

Another advantage is that meat derived from stem cells is very hygienic, being produced in a clean, medical-grade environment where there are low levels of bacteria and other microorganisms. “For example, pork is usually not supposed to be eaten unless it is cooked, but it will be possible to eat artificially produced pork raw, in the same way that we eat raw fish sashimi in Japan,” says Matsusaki. It may also put certain meats back on the menu for vegetarians.

The team anticipates that the 3D printing of various cell types produced from stem cells could have broader application than just making artificial meat. “While we’re now focusing on making meat, I think the technology could have other spinoff applications,” says Tomita.

A particular promising area of application is in the medical arena. For example, similar to organoids, cultured cells could be used for testing drugs and other therapies without using live animals. “In the future, if we can culture cells and use them to mimic organs, such as the heart or liver, we will be able to test the effects of such drugs without using human or animal subjects,” says Matsusaki.

Tomita concurs: “We are expecting to study the effects and side effects of drugs in a system that is closer to that in the actual human body.”

Future challenges

Having demonstrated the ability of their technology to produce structured meat, the team now has to overcome some hurdles for it to become commercially viable. The biggest one is the need to scale up the technology. “From a technical viewpoint, we should be able to automate everything,” says Matsusaki. “The most challenging part will be to produce enough cells. If we can achieve that, I don’t see any problems scaling up by using Shimadzu’s technology.”

Another challenge will be to make a blood-like component. Blood imparts meat with some of its smell and taste. It’s currently possible to produce blood vessels, but making the blood to go in them will be harder.

But it’s not just technology that needs to advance; legislation will need to be put in place to cover this new foodstuff. “If we are to sell this meat, we will need to make it transparent in terms of hygiene management and traceability, since cultured meat is made using a totally new processing method from conventional food,” explains Kirihara.

Finally, it will be important to convince the public of the benefits of eating artificially produced meat. There is currently a mixed reaction from people. “Many people are interested in this research and want to try our wagyu when it becomes available, but others wonder whether people would really want to eat it,” concedes Matsusaki. It will be vital to allay concerns and to present the health and environmental benefits that such meat can offer.

Working together for the good of the planet

The team is excited about the benefits that their technology can bring, and want to involve others in helping them develop it further. “This technology is very ecofriendly and human friendly,” says Kirihara. “We’re working with some upcycling technology players, and eventually we hope to integrate their technologies with ours. I think it will be great if we can turn the food chain into a food cycle.”

The team is keen to collaborate with other researchers on this project. “The food crisis is a huge social problem that cannot be solved by one small group,” says Matsusaki. “I think it would be better for the planet if we could all work together to solve it.”

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