'Space beef' sounds like the kind of insufferable jam band that would be relegated to a Thursday afternoon slot at Bonnaroo, but thanks to a collaboration between an Israeli cultivated meat company, a Russian-made 3D bioprinter, and two American start-ups, it's actually a real thing.
Aleph Farms announced on Monday that it had successfully grown a small piece of meat on the International Space Station, which is 248 miles from any natural resources including, you know, beef cattle. The company's complicated-sounding system involves duplicating a cow's natural muscle tissue-regeneration processes under highly controlled laboratory conditions. The bovine cell spheroids were harvested on earth, and then combined with growth factors and other materials on the ISS, before being "printed" with a special 3D bioprinter that was developed by Moscow-based 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
"This cutting-edge research in some of the most extreme environments imaginable, serves as an essential growth indicator of sustainable food production methods that don't exacerbate land waste, water waste, and pollution," Aleph Farms said in a statement. "These methods aimed at feeding the rapidly growing population, predicted to reach 10 billion individuals by 2050."
The company has successfully "grown" a steak in a lab here on Earth, but had to make some modifications for the zero-gravity environment on the ISS.
"Maturing of bioprinted organs and tissues in zero gravity proceeds much faster than in Earth gravity conditions. The tissue is being printed from all sides simultaneously, like making a snowball, while most other bioprinters create it layer-by-layer," an Aleph Farms spokesperson told Space.com. "On Earth, the cells always fall downward. In zero gravity, they hang in space and interfere only with each other. Layer-by-layer printing in gravity requires a support structure. Printing in zero gravity allows tissue to be created only with cell material, without any intermediate support."
Aleph Farms developed a lab-grown steak prototype last December, but its execs admitted that they had "a bit more work" to do to make it taste like conventional beef. (And let's all take a sec to acknowledge the person or people who had to put it in their mouths so they'd know how rank it was.)
Didier Toubia, the co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, compared his company's ISS achievement to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first space flight, and to Neil Armstrong taking those first historic steps on the moon.
“We are working on a new method to produce the same meat, but in a way that uses less than half of the greenhouse gasses,” Toubia told Bloomberg. “The experiment in space shows that meat can be cultivated in the harshest conditions, meaning anywhere, anytime and for anyone.”
Despite Toubia's understated assessment of the space beef's importance, it was just created as "proof of concept." He also acknowledged that it could be another three years before the company's lab-grown steaks are available to consumers on Earth.
But if you need to name your just-formed jam band, Space Beef is probably still available.