Gelatine has many successful and well-known uses in a wide range of fields – from cosmetics and food preparation to pharmaceutical and medical applications. And as a versatile natural product, gelatine continues to inspire researchers and scientists all over the world to discover new and often unexpected uses.
Stem cell therapy is used to remove pathogens and thus effect recovery from a number of diseases (e.g. cancer). In this, stem cells are cultivated on special surfaces and implanted together with these into the human body. Materials such as latex, Styrofoam or even glass particles are often used as carriers, since stem cells can “hold on” well to them. However, these materials may lead to undesired side effects because the human body cannot break them down biologically. A gelatine carrier is a gentle alternative, because it is an entirely natural product. Gelatine is very well tolerated by the body and can be broken down completely.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart have developed biological inks made from gelatine that are suitable for 3D printing and that can be used to create artificial tissue. The biological inks remain in their liquid form during the printing process. However, when they are subsequently treated with UV light, they link together to form hydrogels that do not dissolve when heated or when placed in water. The scientists can control the chemical modification of the biomolecules in such a way that the resulting gels have varying degrees of solidity and swellability. This makes it possible to recreate the properties of natural tissues – from solid cartilage to soft fat tissues – and make custom-fit implants for crash victims, for example.
Gelatine can also be used to take an in-depth look at the growth and behaviour of bacterial communities. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, have developed gelatine cages for germs using a laser-supported procedure. Conditions in these cages can be precisely controlled, making it possible to study the development of antibiotic resistance or therapies for infections, as researcher Jodi Connell and her colleagues wrote in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
A student at Brunel University in Great Britain has used gelatine to develop a so-called “Bump Mark”, which could replace or at least supplement the labels widely used to indicate the shelf life of perishables. The mark is filled with gelatine and also contains little bumps. The bumps cannot be felt as long as the gelatine remains solid. However, as the food approaches its date of expiration, the gelatine begins to decay and becomes fluid, allowing consumers to clearly feel the bumps with their fingers. Gelatine is a protein and “ages” in a similar way to milk, meat or cheese, especially since the label is exposed to the same conditions as the contents of the package.
The different shelf lives of the various foods can be taken into account by varying the amount of gelatine in the label: the more gelatine the label contains, the longer it will remain in a solid state and cover the bumps.
For all consumers, but especially for those who are visually impaired, the “Bump Mark” could be a huge help because it dispenses with the tedious process of deciphering best-before dates. In addition, it could do away with the uncertainty many consumers feel when dealing with these kinds of dates: in Western countries especially, consumers throw out large amounts of food that would still have been perfectly good, simply because it was past the best-before date.