Research at Tufts University aims to develop a very unique alternative protein to feed astronauts journeying to Mars.

“There are a lot of interesting sources of cells to grow food that are essentially underutilized, understudied and undertapped with great potential,” David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering and professor and chair, Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts University, explained.

“Our ultimate goal here is to find an unusual source that fits the mission for long-term space travel for NASA. That’s why we chose to use insect cells.”

The research project, called Deep Space Entomoculture, was one of the 18 that received funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Deep Space Food Challenge. 

Winning teams developed “game-changing food technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious and palatable food outputs for long-duration space missions, and that have potential to benefit people on Earth,” according to NASA.

Two emerging meat alternative trends

Cultivated insect cells takes advantage of two emerging meat alternative trends. 

Although they are not commonly consumed in the U.S., many cultures worldwide eat insects. The most common insect consumed worldwide by humans is the beetle, although caterpillars and crickets are also popular. Supporters of human insect protein consumption also promote the fact that insects contain several nutritious essential proteins, fats, minerals and amino acids.

Meanwhile, cultivated meat is created with animal cells that are grown in a stainless-steel tank known as a bioreactor, resulting in a product that resembles chicken, beef, pork and other meats. 

Why cultivated insect cells?

The Tufts research project, conducted by Natalie Rubio, a graduate student in the Kaplan laboratory, is focused on extracting the muscle and fat cells of the tobacco hookworm. She hopes to eventually transform these cells into a product that looks, tastes and has the mouth-feel of traditional proteins.

Cultivated insect cells make better sense as a deep space protein than cultivated mammalian cells for several reasons, Kaplan said.

Insect proteins require less space to breed and produce, have a short lifecycle and can thrive on a variety of feedstocks, which is why the alternative protein is gaining popularity in poultry and other livestock feed.

In addition, they can be stored and grown at room temperature and require only a liquid culture media, which doesn’t require gravity.

“The idea here is to exploit some of the inherent properties of insect cells that are quite different than poultry cells or mammalian cells,” he added. “These ingredients are already entirely simplified, which makes it lower cost and less to carry on a long-term space mission.” 

Cultivated meat still has a long way to go before it could become popular with consumers. It's expensive and the industry is still figuring out how to properly scale up production. But I think even the biggest nay-sayers could see a benefit for the alternative protein to feed astronauts on long-term space journeys.