Growing meat in a lab is not a new concept. A handful of companies are working to perfect the process. Using a couple of host cells and mimicking natural muscle-tissue growth, they are able to grow meat from just a few cells. Now, it’s been done for the first time in space.
Aleph Farms, an Israeli food company, announced the first successful lab-grown meat in space on the International Space Station. They collaborated with 3D Bioprinting Solutions, a Russian company, and two US food companies to run their experiment. In microgravity, printing cells is actually more effective. On Earth, the cells are flattened and need to be layered, one at a time, to build up the muscle tissue. In space, the tissue is printed in all directions, simultaneously. They don’t need a support structure since they only cling to each other.
In terms of space travel, printing meat solves some logistical limitations. Transporting cows in space is far from feasible, but protein is necessary. The alternative to Martian cows is the less appetizing prospect of farming insects as a protein source. Yummy.
Aleph isn’t printing meat in space just to explore the universe. If they can print large quantities of food in space, where it is more efficient, and send it back to earth for consumption, they can help reduce people’s reliance on cattle. Animal farming consumes significant quantities of energy and water, with byproducts like methane. Meat consumption is a driver of climate change. Aleph wants to help preserve the only habitable planet we have.
Growing meat in a lab still uses energy, but less than the conventional meat industry and much of that need can be pulled from alternative energy sources. No more feeding cows for years before transport, slaughter and processing. What takes years now could be done in a few weeks with space printing.
The ISS is also reducing its waste using a new Plastic Recycler. Scheduled for delivery in November, the recycler will turn waste plastic into feedstock for the 3D printer. This will close the loop on plastic waste on the ISS. Sending tools into space and returning them to Earth is laborious, wasteful and expensive. The 3D printer allows astronauts to create many of the tools they need. Now with the recycler, when that tool is superfluous, it is recycled back into the printer. Reducing astronaut’s reliance on Earth gets us one step closer to long-term space exploration.