What will astronauts eat during long space exploration missions when resupply is not possible? Bread yeast, answered by a student research team from Concordia University, finalist in the Deep Space Food Challenge. Through AstroYeast, an independent, sustainable small farm project, scientists also hope to contribute to food security on Earth.
The AstroYeast Microfarm project is one of four finalists in the Deep Space Food Challenge, a technology competition that embodies a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. Earlier this year, the interdisciplinary team of 15 students from Concordia University received $100,000 to continue their research and present it during a final in spring 2024. For three years, they have been working to create a food technology based on edible baker’s yeast.
This is designed to produce the nutrients the crew will need, such as vitamins A and C, but also flavors such as lemon or vanilla. “The yeast can be eaten directly, transformed into a soup base with water and producing new flavours,” explains Lancia Lefebvre, a member of the team and a student in synthetic biology. Dietary diversity is very important in space, because astronauts experience less taste there. »
In fact, although astronaut menus have evolved significantly since the 1960s, eating in space is a delicate undertaking. Fresh foods are rare and should be consumed within a few days of receipt, unless they have been irradiated or heat-treated. Often, dishes are freeze-dried, that is, dried, and water must be added. Nutritional fatigue – and potential deficiencies – can then occur due to the lack of variety in textures.
Young farmers in space
Meanwhile, the engineering side of the project is responsible for building a fully automated bioreactor which will be used to grow yeast within the plant itself. “We design special tanks filled with a specific liquid to incubate the yeasts in the conditions they prefer, namely a constant, controlled temperature, clean air and nutrients,” explains Felipe Pérez, technical and mechanical director of the project. . It’s like a little factory. »
Felipe Pérez explains that the idea is to create a system that is as sustainable as possible, since sending things into space is very expensive and difficult. Hence the interest in an incubator that works to enhance the nutritional independence of astronauts. They put a sample of yeast into the machine, and the machine does the rest. “The yeast will grow for about two days, and once it develops, the system can collect it and heat-treat it to sterilize it,” explains Gabriel Aguiar Tawil, an applied synthetic biology student at Concordia University, who is leading this component. Genetic. Then “little farmers in space” harvest and eat it.
The team is part of the CUBICS initiative, which offers post-secondary students the opportunity to design their own small satellite, a CubeSat, and send it into space. In partnership with Concordia’s Spacecraft Division, it is building an onboard system to test yeasts in space conditions and collect valuable data. “In general, one of the big challenges is respecting space constraints,” explains Lancia Lefebvre.
And on the ground?
AstroYeast technology is not only interesting for life in space. M saysI Lefebvre. For example, communities in northern Canada face food challenges posed by unpredictable weather conditions.
“Working in space exploration is very stimulating, as it brings us back to big questions, specifically why we exist today, and how our environment works,” the student researcher enthusiastically says. The conditions and limitations of space also remind us how important and wonderful life on Earth is. »
The Deep Space Food Challenge features three other finalists. The Canada GOOSE project at the University of Guelph offers a plant growth room for growing fruits, vegetables and mushrooms with electricity and water supply. A group from McGill University will present a system for raising, collecting and processing the locusts. Finally, Ecoation is working on new technology that has the potential to save more than 500kg of nutrient-dense foods per year, including a meat substitute called “ bacon my place”.
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