In NASA's Quest to Feed Astronauts in Deep Space, Tufts Team Sees Promise in Insect Cells

Researchers at the School of Engineering, known for advances in cellular agriculture, now venture into research on a protein source they say is ideal for travel that may span years

Future astronauts traveling to Mars will need food that’s nutritious and tasty enough to keep them in peak health for several years—and that’s also easy to grow, store, and prepare with minimal waste. A Tufts team is developing a promising solution: an alternative version of meat that’s made from cultivated insect cells.

The research project in the Kaplan Laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering is one of 18 U.S. projects awarded funding last fall in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge, an initiative aimed at generating ideas to support astronauts over prolonged probes. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency also jointly funded 10 international submissions.

The winning teams are charged with creating what NASA calls “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.” Other ideas that received funding include snacks made from dehydrated microalgae and an artificial photosynthetic system to grow plants for food.

We’re looking at Earth the same way we look at the space station, but with more problems and in a larger volume. It's all about scale.”

David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering

Insect cells, said David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering, check all the NASA boxes. They use fewer specialized resources to grow and are highly adaptable to thrive in the environment of a space station.

“In space, what’s needed are low-cost, simple ingredients you can carry in high density to produce lots of food over long periods of time,” he said. “The system we’re proposing is highly efficient.” And nutritionally, insects are “just as good, if not better, than animal-derived meats, and yet can be produced at much lower cost.”

That efficiency makes growing insect cells a promising way to feed people on Earth in a future dominated by climate change, he added. Modern agriculture is carbon-intense, and food scarcity is projected to increase for a growing global population.

“We’re looking at Earth the same way we look at the space station, but with more problems and in a larger volume,” he said. “It's all about scale.”

That all-encompassing potential for insect-cell cultivating is encapsulated in the name of the Tufts proposal: Deep Space Entomoculture. Natalie Rubio, EG21, coined the word entomoculture for her Ph.D. thesis (“entomo” is the Greek root for insects). She is the first graduate student in the Kaplan Lab to focus specifically on the possibility of growing insect cells for food production. She did this by applying tissue engineering techniques to cells from insects. The techniques had previously been developed for mammal cells for regenerative medicine, which promotes the repair or replacement of injured cells, tissues, or organs. 

Rubio, whose studies were supported by a fellowship from the nonprofit New Harvest, first heard about the concept of cultured meat as a college student committed to animal welfare.  “I just instantly fell in love with the idea,” she said. “I knew that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Insect cells may be a better source of deep space protein than cultivated mammal cells, explained Sophie Letcher, EG25, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering who’s working on the project with continued New Harvest funding. Cells from a cow or a pig need to be heated to the temperatures of the animals in which they would naturally grow, while insect cells can be grown at room temperature. Most mammalian cells grown for cultured meat purposes need to be attached to a dish or substrate, which would typically require gravity, but insect cells can more easily grow suspended in a liquid culture media (made up of amino acids, sugar, salts, and other ingredients).  “And they've actually already been grown in simulated microgravity,” said Letcher. “That’s a big point of interest.”

The team is working with cells collected from eggs of the tobacco hornworm, part of a longstanding collaboration with biologist Barry Trimmer, the Henry Bromfield Pearson Professor of Natural Sciences and director of the Neuromechanics and Biomimetic Devices Laboratory. The Trimmer lab maintains a colony of the tobacco hornworm to study insect physiology for modeling soft robotics.

The Tufts team is extracting muscle and fat cells, the same types that comprise a traditional hamburger, said Letcher. How to transform those cells to have the same look, taste, and mouth-feel of familiar meat products is one question the team will explore. Growing cells on a kind of organic scaffolding may give them the three-dimensional structure and texture they need to be transformed into foods such as burgers and meatballs, she said.

Other questions include how to produce the greatest mass of meat product from the fewest cells within a small area, and how to maintain sterile conditions.

The Kaplan Lab is renowned for its advances in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, and cellular agriculture. The current research on insect cells is the first NASA-funded food study for the lab, but it’s hardly its first close look at cellular agriculture. The Kaplan Lab was recently awarded a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a National Institute for Cellular Agriculture.      

Tufts will submit its findings to NASA later this year, and Kaplan is hopeful that Tufts will continue to be selected for support throughout future phases of the challenge.

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