Like Popeye, we have all grown up knowing the health benefits of eating leafy green spinach. Belonging to the chenopodiaceae family (also known as goosefoot), spinach is part of a family of nutritional powerhouses.

As for its benefits, dark green spinach leaves contain high levels of chlorophyll and health-promoting carotenoids (beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin), which are touted to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancerous properties — especially important for healthy eye-sight, helping to prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. Spinach is also rich in folate, which helps to lower homocysteine levels. A high level of homocystein is an emerging risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease.

But spinach is more than a superfood. Scientists are now able to convert spinach leaves into heart tissue, according to new research in the journal Biomaterials.

Despite advances in tissue engineering, organ shortage remains a crisis, and the need for organs and tissues available for transplantation far exceeds their availability. About 120,000 people in the United States are currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant.

Another name is added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. In fact, 22 Americans die each day waiting for an organ transplant.

According to Glenn Gaudette, the study's senior researcher and a professor of biomedical engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, one of the big problems in engineering heart muscle is getting blood flow to all of the cells. So, researchers at the WPI developed a method to use the vascular network in spinach leaves to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to grow human tissue.

Gaudette explained that spinach grows a network of veins that thread through its leaves in a way similar to blood vessels through a human heart. In this study, the researchers perfused spinach leaves with detergent that removed all the cellular material from the leaf, leaving the structure that keeps those cells in place.

Then, the researchers were able to seed human cells onto that structure. They bathed the remaining plant frame in live human cells so that the human tissue grew on the spinach scaffolding and surrounded the tiny veins.

Once they had transformed the spinach leaf into a mini-heart by stacking up thin, flat multiple leaves, the team sent fluids and microbeads through its veins to show that blood cells can flow through this system. This method may also help with other types of plants to repair other types of body tissues.

Growing a vascular system has been a major roadblock in tissue engineering. The veins in the spinach leaf replicate the way blood flows through the heart tissue.

The scientists in this study hope that one day this method can be used to better filter blood in the damaged tissue in human hearts in patients who have had heart attacks or have suffered other cardiac issues that prevent their hearts from contracting. The veins in the modified leaves will be able to deliver oxygen to the replacement tissue, thereby aiding in generating much-needed new heart tissue.