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By Roger Highfield on

Could Space Steaks Benefit Earth?

The splashdown of a space tourism mission yesterday marks the end of a new experiment to help astronauts grow their own food. Roger Highfield, Science Director, discusses how growing meat in microgravity could pave the way for a more efficient alternative to farming back on Earth. 

Efforts to grow meat in space for long-duration missions have been boosted by NASA’s first ever space tourism mission to the International Space Station.

US entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canadian philanthropist Mark Pathy and ex-Israeli Air Force pilot and entrepreneur Eytan Stibbe reportedly each paid $55 million for their SpaceX launch and 15-day stay on the ISS as part of the Axiom Mission 1.

The mission shows how NASA is partnering with commercial companies in an attempt to establish a robust low-Earth orbit economy – one where government and private astronauts live and work aboard the space station and future commercial habitats.

On board the ISS, the space tourists had carried out an experiment to turn bovine cells into some of the component cells of steak. Following splashdown last night near Florida, teams retrieved science aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

‘The short-term aim is to develop robust and environmentally-kind beef for consumption on Earth,’ said Pascal Rosenfeld, Deputy VP of New Ventures and Space for Aleph Farms, the Israeli company behind the work. ‘However, the longer-term ambition is to develop robust and environmentally-kind beef for consumption on Earth.’

Launch of the SpaceX rocket for Axiom Mission 1. Credit: SpaceX
Launch of the SpaceX rocket for Axiom Mission 1. Credit: SpaceX

The experiment is the culmination of efforts that started in 2018, when the company produced the world’s first beef steak cultivated outside a cow, a sample of which was unveiled by Mr. Rosenfeld in the Science Museum.

Working with their partners in 2019, 3D Bioprinting Solutions, they 3D bio-printed a small-scale muscle tissue from cow cells on board the ISS that orbits 227 miles overhead, as part of their Aleph Zero mission ‘to produce quality, delicious meat, independent of climate or availability of natural resources.’

During the latest Axiom mission, in the European Columbus Module of the ISS, bovine cells were grown within a chip, around the size of a credit card, inside a module the size of two shoeboxes.

Back in Israel, Aleph Farms will analyse the results of the new ISS experiments to see how bovine cells fared in microgravity. The hope is that they have diversified into three basic types of cells, the building blocks of steak.

Aleph Farms hopes to get insights into the two basic processes responsible for muscle tissue formation, the proliferation of bovine cells and differentiation of cow cells into myoblast (muscle), adipose (fat) and connective tissue.

On Earth, Aleph Farms will carry out the next steps, when 3D bioprinting will be used to assemble the cells into a steak to customise texture, shape and fat marbling.

‘After we bio-printed the tissue, we incubate it so that the cells can continue to grow, differentiate and interact (this is key) so that they can reach the texture and qualities of a real steak,’ he said. ‘With the natural vascularization in tissues, nutrients can perfuse across the meat in three dimensions. The result is a full 3D printed steak. It integrates the same muscle, fat, and organoleptic attributes of a steak at your favourite butcher.’

Mr. Rosenfeld, a vegetarian who is happy to eat this lab-grown meat, said that it takes two and a half years to grow a full animal that weighs 650 kilograms, out of which only about 30-40 per cent will be used for meat. Comparatively, cultivating meat directly from cells takes less than three weeks (97% less time), with much less wastage and more efficiency than traditional farming.

Aleph is also taking part in the NASA & CSA Deep Space Food Challenge, organised by the US and Canadian space agencies, which aims to fill the food gaps for a crew of four during a three-year round trip mission with no resupply.

Mr. Rosenfeld likened the space steak project to how car manufacturers use Formula One racing to push technology to the limits. ‘In space we are developing the most efficient processes under the toughest environments to grow steak from animal cells. ​​This type of extreme research forces us to think creatively and invent new capabilities’ he said.

‘These processes can then be transferred to our mainstream production on Earth to help us increase efficiencies and reduce our environmental footprint. Our space program will ultimately help us develop more sustainable, frugal and resilient food systems anywhere.’

Aleph’s approach is based on research by Professor Shulamit Levenberg, at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, who has been developing the technology to take human stem cells – which have the potential to differentiate into many types, from cardiac muscles to spinal cords – and grow them into tissues for treatments.  

Aleph relies on banks of bovine stem cells, removed in biopsies, from which meat can be cultivated. Their approach differs from the one used by Roslin Biotech in the UK, for example, when a handful of factors are used to ‘reprogram’ an adult cell – from adult cattle, sheep and pigs – to make it embryonic again, creating a so-called iPS cell (induced pluripotent stem cell) that can multiply to form any kind of tissue, from fat to muscle.

Swapping the meat and dairy products in a typical European diet for laboratory-grown meat, insect protein and other novel foods could reduce food-related greenhouse emissions, as well as land and water use, by more than 80 per cent,  according to a new study by Rachel Mazac at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and her colleagues.