In the future a pasta dinner might be shaped like a flower or star or another untraditional shape.

A group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tangible Media Group have developed flat sheets of gelatin and starch that when submerged in water instantly sprout into 3D structures including pasta shapes like macaroni and rotini and other shapes such as flowers and horse saddles.

“This project is the one of the latest to materialize our vision of 'radical atoms'—combining human interactions with dynamic physical materials, which are transformable, conformable and informable,” Hiroshi Ishii, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor in media arts and sciences and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

The films were printed with a 3D printer that can pattern cellulose onto films of gelatin. However, the researchers outlined ways that users can reproduce similar effects with more common techniques like screenprinting.

The researchers developed a hybrid fabrication strategy and conducted a performance simulation to test the technique. They devised a way where users can customize food shape transformations through a pre-defined simulation platform and then fabricate the designed patterns using additive manufacturing.

While the shape-shifting configuration may get the headlines, the researchers believe this technology could reduce food-shipping costs because the edible films could be stacked together and shipped to consumers.

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air,” Wen Wang, a co-author on the paper and a former graduate student and research scientists in MIT’s Media Lab, said in a statement. “We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

The researchers engineered a flat, two-layer film made from the gelatin of two different densities, where the top layer is more densely packed and able to absorb more water than the bottom layer. After it is emerged in water the top layer curls over the bottom layer to form a slowly rising arch.

The researchers then added 3D printing strips of edible cellulose over the top gelatin layer as a way to control where and to what degree the structure bends. These strips naturally absorb very little water and could act as a water barrier to control the amount of water that the top layer is exposed to.

“This way you can have programmability,” Lining Yao, lead author and a former graduate student, said in a statement. “You ultimately start to control the degree of bending and the total geometry of the structure.”

The researchers tested the food by designing transparent discs of gelatin flavored with plankton and squid ink that instantly wrap around small beads of caviar, as well as long fettuccini-like strips, made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures, causing the noodles to spontaneously divide when hot broth melts away certain sections.

The researchers tested the cellulose patterns and the dimensions of the structures and also tested mechanical properties including toughness.

“We did many lab tests and collected a database, within which you can pick different shapes, with fabrication instructions,” Wang said. “Reversibly, you can also select a basic pattern from the database and adjust the distribution or thickness, and can see how the final transformation will look.”