At that time, astronauts on the International Space Station printed beef in space

A Russian lab aboard the International Space Station (ISS) used a 3D tissue-making printer to print a little beef in 2019.

3D printed beef. Image credits: 3D Bioprinting Solutions.

Flesh without killing killing

Didier Toubia, head of Israeli startup Alf Farms that has provided cells for the tests, said the technology could help make “long-term travel possible and renew space exploration” to places as far away as Mars. However, he added, the company’s main objective is to provide such animal-free meat to the markets on Earth, and that it is only a matter of time before these products reach the supermarkets.

The idea, Toubia says, “is not to replace traditional farming.” “It’s about being a better alternative to factory farming.”

Mark Post, a Dutch scientist from Maastricht University, created and introduced the first burger derived from bovine stem cells in 2013. Since then, there has been huge interest from industry and consumers in bringing lab-grown meat to market. However, production costs are still high, which has prevented these products from reaching the shelves near you. However, as research progresses and production expands, the price of lab-grown meat could soon become competitive.

While we’re still debating what to call these products – all laboratory, synthetic, cell-based, or cultured meats have all been suggested – the public has been invited to sample them and provide feedback. This may indicate that the commercialization of this type of meat, at least on a small scale, is not far off. Initially, cost will remain a limiting factor and it is likely that these products will only play a specialized role. However, industry estimates suggest that “affordable” lab-grown meat could hit supermarket shelves within 5 to 20 years.

But all this is happening here. What about space? Israeli startup Alf Farms has partnered with several 3D printing companies to conduct an experiment on the International Space Station. The end result, they say, is the first such case of artificial meat to be produced in space.

The company explains that their method mimics natural tissue regeneration processes. This is intended to reproduce the structure and texture of beef to produce a piece of meat that looks more realistic. However, this has proven to be a challenge on Earth; Alf Farms hopes the space experiment will help guide further development on this planet.

Russia-based 3D Bioprinting Solutions provided the printer for the experiment conducted in the Russian laboratory aboard the International Space Station. US-based Meal Source Technologies and Finless Foods also participated in the trial. The “bio ink” used is a mixture of animal cells and growth factors. In space, the process would probably be a lot faster since the ink can grow in all directions and doesn’t need a supporting structure (a grid on the ground is needed).

While Aleph Farms can’t 3D-print meat at competitive prices, the cost of launching things into space is too high. It would make sense, then, to give astronauts a way to produce at least some meat on board. It will help reduce logistics costs, free up storage space, and enable long-distance assignments.

Lab-grown meat can help us reduce the environmental burden of our farming, as it uses much less water and land than conventional farms. It also means fewer cows on farms and slaughterhouses. However, there is still some debate about where the increased use of energy will affect its true environmental impact, and about issues related to the nutrition of the resulting product.

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