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the future of space food

Bio-engineered yeast: the future of space food

Take a common form of yeast, a 3D printer, and some clever science, and what do you have? A versatile and nutritious food system for the demanding space travelers of tomorrow.

in a new Nature communication documentresearchers from Macquarie University and the ARC Center of Excellence in Synthetic Biology outlined a vision for a customizable food system that provides dishes with the taste, texture, and nutrients of their terrestrial counterparts.

The main ingredient used in the space food system is yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. cerevisiae), a food grade microorganism with thousands of years of use in baking, brewing and winemaking. Yeast cells are already nutritious, containing substantial protein, carbohydrates, small amounts of fat, and most of the essential amino acids humans need from food. With a little engineering, S.cerevisiae can be fortified to add nutrients, taste, color and texture.

“The best approach to sustaining extensive human space enterprises is to produce food on site,” said lead author Dr Briardo Llorente, from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences.

Previous work has estimated that all the vitamins and macronutrients needed for a balanced human diet could feed 50-100 people per day from a 3000 L fermentation tank, making S.cerevisiae a candidate to develop into a microbial food production system.

More like star trek’s replicative food system, which synthesizes food on demand, this system would involve using the power of synthetic biology to give yeast the ability to produce the common nutrients and sensory attributes of food made on Earth such as flavors, colors, smells and textures. This will generate microbial-based foods with desirable sensory and nutritional profiles.

Scientists believe that 3D food printing technologies could be used to create personalized meals for astronauts using these modified yeast cells. This can come in the form of foods like sushi or lasagna, where each layer has a different color, taste and texture, or a compact protein-like bar that tastes and smells exactly like the desired food.

The innovative food system could also contribute to the circular economy, with manufactured food leaving little or no waste for space travelers while maximizing off-Earth food production capabilities.

“Essentially what we’re proposing is to develop technology and capabilities that will transform yeast from the basic microbe that we use to produce food into something much more potent that can actually be used as a complete food source,” Llorente said. “With further research, we can use synthetic biology to consolidate multiple sensory and nutritional attributes and develop innovative, sustainable and more environmentally friendly food production systems.”

While space is the obvious use case, given the limitations of producing food in harsh environments, Llorente and the team believe artificial yeast also has the potential to address sustainability right here on Earth.

“As we see modified food sources gain mainstream popularity, there is a growing market for the increased use of modified yeasts in addressing sustainability issues. These alternative foods may one day solve some of our most complex food security issues in a sustainable way while removing the pressure on natural ecosystems,” said Llorente.

Image caption: iStock.com/CesareFerrari