Meet the researcher: Growing meat in space, changing life on Earth with João Garcia

22 September 2022

A project to feed astronauts on future missions to Mars could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of people back on Earth, according to a researcher studying the feasibility of cultivating meat in space.

Dr João Pedro Marques Garcia

Name: Dr João Pedro Marques Garcia

Job title: Research Fellow

Organisation: European Space Agency (ESA), Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration

Sustainable protein specialism: Cultivated meat

A project to feed astronauts on future missions to Mars could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of people back on Earth, according to a researcher studying the feasibility of cultivating meat in space.

Dr João Garcia is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a project looking into one of the biggest barriers to long-distance space travel – what are the astronauts going to eat?

This isn’t a problem onboard the International Space Station, where food is relatively easy to resupply, but as the agency plans to send people further – including to the red planet – vessels won’t be able to carry the supplies necessary for two- or three-year missions, and packaged foods may lose their nutritional value.

ESA is examining ways in which astronauts can produce their own fresh food onboard the craft, including options such as fermentation and growing vegetables – and is now taking a serious interest in cultivated meat. The agency has selected two teams to develop this concept – one made up of the German company yuri and Reutlingen University, and another including UK companies Kayser Space, Cellular Agriculture and Campden BRI.

Based at the agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, João is working on a separate project looking into every aspect of cultivated meat – from the basic stem cells from which cultivated meat is grown, to the scaffolds used to provide the structure and mouthfeel of foods like steak. But one of the biggest challenges is the cultivators, or bioreactors – similar to the fermentation tanks used for brewing beer – in which cultivated meat grows.

He explained: “I’m looking at everything, even how the crew would cook the meat they produce.

“There’s a lot of challenges – it’s possible to have a bioreactor in space, but not one that’s 20 cubic metres large. We need to set up boundaries and think very carefully about issues like size and weight.”

Technological challenges

The amount of cell culture media – the nutrient-rich broth that feeds the cells – that would need to be taken on missions is also a huge issue, as well as whether it can be recycled.

Calculations about how much meat would need to be produced to feed a crew of up to six people throughout the mission are vital, as well as how much media would be required, while ensuring cultivated meat can provide the crew with a healthy and balanced diet.

João said: “One thing I would like to look at is how to introduce variety into the diet. I would investigate a system that would be able to produce not only beef and chicken but also salmon and tuna. Ideally, I would want to use something that could work with any cell type.”

His two-year project will culminate in a set of recommendations for ESA, and may be followed by recommendations for follow-up studies on the development of space-based meat cultivation.

Another challenge João faces is that, with this technology advancing so quickly, assessments must be made based on what can be achieved in the near future – not just right now. 

As well as pouring over the latest academic findings on cultivated meat, he says the Good Food Institute’s report on cell culture growth rates, which included information from private companies and was written by Lead Scientist Elliot Swartz, has been invaluable.

Down to Earth

While talk about feeding astronauts on Mars may sound far-removed from everyday life, technological advances for the exploration of space have always had practical applications for life on Earth. The Apollo missions of the 1960s are credited with developing everything from aviation flight controls to hearing aids and improved food safety.

João says this is at the heart of his – and the agency’s – thinking.

“ESA works for the Earth,” he said. “It looks very closely at the return Earth will get from all these scientific advances. That’s really important when it comes to cultivated meat. 

“If you can create a small system that’s capable of producing reliable amounts of food, that could be very useful for people facing natural disasters, living in remote locations – or even in people’s homes or restaurants.

“ESA is interested in the development of more secure and safe food systems, and it wants to contribute to a more circular economy. The knowledge we can gain by producing this for space would be huge if we can bring it down to Earth.”

Making an impact

João started working for ESA after a PhD in regenerative medicine at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which he completed following a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s in biomedical engineering at the University of Porto in Portugal.

His interested in cultivated meat was first sparked when he listened to a talk by Dr Mark Post – creator of the world’s first cultivated beef burger – at the Netherlands Society of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering (NBTE) several years ago.

At first, he wasn’t convinced, but as he developed a deeper understanding of stem cell science, he became fascinated by the idea and wanted to get involved.

He also started thinking about how he could make a difference to society throughout his career, saying: “I thought about the impact my work in the medical field would have. Then I looked at the impact cultivated meat could have – and the impact was just not comparable. 

“If you bring cultivated meat to the market and have it used around the world you will impact 100% of the people on the planet – that’s what I liked about it.”

Networking ‘essential’ for young researchers

João became aware of the role after it was posted on social media by someone working in cultivated meat, and says being active on networks like LinkedIn and Twitter – as well as taking part in face to face networking – is essential for anyone wanting to find out about the sustainable protein sectors.

He said: “For anyone interested in cultivated meat, or who wants to work in the field, they should get involved in the companies – go and talk to them. I did that a lot, not to apply for specific roles, but just to find out what was happening and try to understand what kind of expertise and background companies were looking for.

“In a couple of years there will be people graduating with cellular agriculture degrees. It’s growing, but at the moment it’s still a very small world. For now, I’d advise anyone who’s interested to get involved in networks and push yourself out there.”

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