If any doubt remained over whether spinach truly is the most versatile salad ingredient, sceptics should look no further than a thrilling development in biomedical engineering that has seen the humble little leaf take centre stage this month. Brace yourselves, because this classic super-food just got a whole lot more super – scientists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in America have found a way to convert the spinach leaf into human heart tissue.
It might sound like the latest fad cooked up by the more questionable fringes of Tumblr, but the science behind it surprisingly makes a lot of sense. A spinach leaf provides a useful scaffold for human heart cells, because it grows a network of veins similar to blood vessels in the heart. The researchers, led by Glenn Gaudette and Joshua Gershlak, began by perfusing the leaves with detergent to strip them of their plant cells, making the leaf transparent. They then seeded these gaps with human heart tissue, enabling clusters of heart cells to beat for up to three weeks thanks to the leaf’s vascular structure, which delivered blood, oxygen and nutrients to the cells.
The implications of this new research are pretty damn exciting, and not just because the washed-out spinach leaf looks like an alien’s face. The researchers believe that spinach leaves could one day be used to grow healthy heart muscle for treating heart-attack patients; providing a cost-efficient, “green” solution to the shortage of organ donors that causes hundreds of deaths each year. And it’s not just spinach that could hold the key to saving lives in this way: parsley, peanut roots, and even wood from trees could also be used for tissue regeneration and bone engineering, the scientists say.
Whether or not the spinach scaffolds will be safe and fully effective for human use is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, it’s worth speculating over whether a new posthuman dawn could be just around the corner, in which veg-enhanced bodies will overtake avocado-on-toast and kale smoothies as the holy grail for health-crazed hipsters, and cult-status celebrities will be queueing up to have their internal organs replaced with artichoke hearts and courgette ribbons. Dystopian visions aside however, the use of spinach leaves in tissue regeneration experiments could indicate an important step forward in the field (geddit?) of life-saving medical research.
[Cat Acheson – @Cat_Acheson]