Spinach has long been labelled a superfood — look no further than Popeye and his bulging biceps for pop culture evidence of that.
But, now, researchers have found that not only is the leafy green good for the body, it can actually mimic the actions of the human heart.
Biomedical engineers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts were looking to engineer a solution to widespread organ donor shortage in the U.S.
It was over lunch that two of the scientists, Glenn Gaudette and Joshua Gershlak, began to toy with the idea of experimenting with salad greens, reports the Washington Post.
Their study, published this month in the journal Biomaterials, focused on the similarities between the structure of spinach leaves and the human heart. Both have a branching network of thin veins that deliver water and nutrients to cells.
"The main limiting factor for tissue engineering … is the lack of a vascular network," Gershlak said in a video describing the study. "Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death."
In a series of experiments, the team was able to strip spinach leaves of their plant cells using a special detergent, leaving behind a frame made of cellulose. They then gave these cellulose frames a bath in human cells, so that human tissue began to grow on the spinach and encase the tiny veins on each leaf.
After this was complete, they injected fluids and microbeads similar in size to human blood cells through the network of veins on the leaves.
The most amazing part? After five days, the muscle cells in the leaves started to beat.
"It was definitely a double take," Gershlak told the Post. "All of a sudden you see cells moving."
A sequence showing how a spinach leaf is stripped of its plant cells, a process called decellularization, before fluids mimicking human blood cells are distributed through the leaf's veins. (Photo: Worcester Polytechnic Institute)
"We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising," said Gaudette in a statement. "Adapting abundant plants that farmers have been cultivating for thousands of years for use in tissue engineering could solve a host of problems limiting the field."
In their video, the researchers describe the future potential for the technology, explaining that the decellularized greens could potentially be stacked for strength and then grafted onto damaged heart tissue.
Watch the video above for more information on this groundbreaking research.