An innovative Israeli technology, enabling meat growth without any harm to animals, in a process consuming far fewer resources than those required to raise an entire animal for meat. Led by the Ramon Foundation, in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, it was tested at the International Space Station on the Rakia Mission, with the eventual goal of supplying astronauts with fresh and nourishing meat on long and distant space missions
In his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, author Douglas Adams finds a solution to the moral dilemma of meat-eating: A genetically engineered cow created to be eaten and wanting to be eaten. The cow even encourages diners to choose which part they are interested in, to help her fulfill her destiny. In the real and less-than-ideal world, cows may not at all express a desire to be eaten, but humans are still interested in eating them, as the average person in the Western world consumes an annual average of several dozens of kilograms of steaks, burgers, and other beef products.
Beef eating also carries a heavy environmental cost. Studies have found that raising cattle for beef is the most polluting food production industry, compared not only to plant crops, but also to animal products such as milk and eggs, and compared even to raising other animals for food. Growing food for cattle consumes vast amounts of land and water and also emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. The raising of sheep and cattle is responsible for 14.5% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, more than the amounts emitted by entire transportation sector. Furthermore, methane, which is emitted as a result of the digestive and fermentative processes in the animal’s body, is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and has a significant effect on global warming.
Similar to many other fields, the solution to the problem is expected to come from science. The knowledge that has accumulated in recent years from the growth of living cells and of entire tissues, alongside technological developments such as sophisticated 3D printing, is advancing us towards a revolution in medicine, which is likely to consist of laboratory-grown organs for transplants as well as of disease-customized and patient-customized treatments. This revolution is also moving into the food industry, hopefully towards an era in which it will no longer be necessary to raise cattle for food and in which we will be able to cultivate only the tissues that present an interest for consumption, without contributing to environmental pollution and without the ethical issue of animal slaughter.
Cultured meat could solve not only a significant portion of the food problems that exist on Earth, but also those present in space. For example, astronauts on long space missions will be able to grow the cells on the spaceship and enjoy fresh meat while being hundreds of millions of kilometers away from home and long years of travel from Earth. This technology is the focus of one of the interesting experiments that will be conducted by Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe on the Rakia Mission at the International Space Station, led by the Ramon Foundation in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology.
Meat with no environmental pollution and without harming any animals. A thin cultured meat steak by Aleph Farms | Photo: Aleph Farms
From the Lab to the Kitchen
Aleph Farms, situated in the Science Park in Rehovot, is one of the leading companies in the growing cultured meat industry. The company was established following a study conducted in the lab of Prof. Shulamit Levenberg from the Technion, the company’s Chief Scientist, specalizing in the study of tissue engineering for medical purposes. A vegan research student who came to her persuaded her to enter the field of culturing edible tissue for food.
“One of the important things in tissue culturing is that it consists of several types of cells, not just one type, and in order to grow three-dimensionally, it needs some sort of a skeleton made of an extracellular substance”, explains Dr. Neta Lavon, the CTO and VP of R&D at Aleph Farms. “Levenberg and her students found a way to generate such a skeleton from a plant-based, edible protein”.
So what does a steak grown from a cell culture taste like, compared to meat grown in the pasture? The company is currently conducting taste tests for small groups, journalists, and investors, and has stated that everyone who tasted the meat has enjoyed it. “It is meat, with all the molecules found in natural meat: fatty acids, proteins and volatile substances, and when cooked it undergoes the same chemical processes that give ordinary meat its taste and flavor”, Lavon emphasizes. “The controlled production also enables us to control its composition, so that we can create a low-fat fillet steak or entrecote with a higher fat percentage”.
One of the leading companies in the field. Right: Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, Didier Toubia, Dr. Neta Lavon, Dr. Tzvika Tamari | Photos: Rami Shlush, Aleph Farms
Environmentally Friendly Meat
How do you produce billions of cow cells without actually harming the cows? The secret is in using embryonic stem cells. Each embryo starts off as a single cell – the fertilized egg. The cell divides in two, and then further divides in two, and so on and so forth. During these initial stages of development, all the cells are identical. Only when the embryo begins to grow do the differentiation processes begin, with the cells undergoing specialization into muscle cells, fat cells, nerve cells, blood cells, and so on. When grown outside of the animal’s body, under controlled conditions, these embryonic stem cells can continue to divide almost indefinitely. “From the cells that we take from a fertilized egg of one cow we can cultivate thousands of cell units, each of which we will use to create thousands of tons of cultured meat”, Lavon says.
Given a large number of stem cells, the growth environment can be changed so as to prompt them to develop into target cells of interest, such as muscle cells and fat cells. In the past, to do this, researchers would use substances derived from the calves. One of Aleph Farms’ breakthroughs is the development of a growth solution containing vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which is non-animal-based. Lavon explains: “We conducted a very comprehensive study to find out which substances present in the solutions extracted from the calves are essential for growth and cellular differentiation and how they can be produced in microorganisms or plants, without using animals”.
Aleph Farms’ cultured meat has several additional significant advantages. Farm animals today are given large amounts of antibiotics to prevent diseases. These antibiotics reach the groundwater, creating resistant bacteria that endanger humans. “No antibiotics are used in our production process in the bio-reactors. Since the entire production process is closed, the shelf life of the products is longer”, says Dr. Tzvika Tamari, director of the space project at Aleph Farms. He adds that “production is also unaffected by seasonal changes, as it happens with animal husbandry, and the supply is therefore expected to be continuous”.
In addition, the resulting product has clear ecological advantages. As mentioned, raising cattle for beef is the most polluting food, and the growth of cultured meat will prevent much of this pollution and will significantly reduce water and land consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The factory grows only the tissues destined to be eaten, saving the need to raise an entire cow and eventually discard large portions of it. Moreover, production makes it possible to recycle some of the ingredients and thus to reduce the amount of waste and to reduce costs. Another environmental advantage of Aleph Farms stems from the planned work method. “Within a few years, we want to be able to produce thousands of tons of meat, not only in Israel, but worldwide”, says Lavon. “Setting up factories in additional locations will enable us to transport as little cargo as possible. Instead of sending tons of meat we simply send a few test tubes with cells to a factory to start the production process, and this helps to reduce the ecological footprint of our production”.
Millions of tons of cultured meat from a single cell. Astronaut Eytan Stibbe is looking through a microscope during a visit to the Aleph Farms factory | Photo: Noy Einav, Aleph Farms
Take the Cow Off the Land
Beyond developing the technologies for growing cultured meat, Aleph Farms’ greatest challenge was to transition from production in a lab, with a scope of a few steaks, to commercial production that would allow for the manufacture and marketing of thousands of tons of meat. “The significant challenge was to lower costs, so that we could produce the meat in large quantities without skyrocketing consumer prices”, Lavon says.
What does skyrocket is not the price but the meat itself. The production process, which is based on the growing of cells in a controlled environment and also in three-dimensional bioprinting, can be performed anywhere, which also makes it a potential method for meat production for astronauts on distant and long space missions, on which it will not be possible to receive a steady supply of food from Earth. “Just as in hydroponic agriculture, where plants are grown in aqueous solutions without the need for soil, our method also takes the cow off the land”, Lavon says.
“Since we are moving away from the need of exploiting large land areas and water resources, we strive to provide food everywhere on Earth, as well as outside it”, Tamari says. “The teams on the space station currently receive a fresh supply of food from Earth every few months, but they are only 400 kilometers above us, and the costs of transporting the food to them are in the tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. In order to provide astronauts with fresh food on deep space missions, we need to be able to produce meat in space with minimum resources. That is our goal”.
Launch costs are currently tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram of fresh food. Simulation of the Dragon spaceship on the AX-1 mission docking at the International Space Station | Source: NASA, public domain
Steaks in the Sky
Nearly two years ago, Aleph Farms made history when it conducted the first space experiment in meat cultivation. Cells cultivated by the company were sent to the space station, and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka used them to print a tiny piece of meat using a three-dimensional bioprinter of those cells on the space station. The astronauts did not eat the piece of meat but sent it back to Earth, to enable Aleph Farms’ scientists to examine the functioning of the cells in conditions of microgravity and to see whether growing meat in space may indeed be possible.
The scientific committee for the Rakia Mission, in which astronaut Eytan Stibbe has participated, selected the Aleph Farms experiment as one of the scientific experiments to be performed at the space station. This time, the experiment was designed to examine the early stages of the production process – cellular growth and differentiation under microgravity conditions. “The experiment will be completely automated and will be conducted in a ‘lab on a chip’ developed by the Israeli company SpacePharma”, explains Tamari. “This chip is about the size of a credit card, and it contains hundreds of thousands of cow cells. A system of tubes and pumps will feed the cells with the growth solution appropriate to each stage of the experiment, in order to prompt the cells to differentiate into muscle cells”.
First proof of feasibility. Cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka working on Aleph Farms’ experiment at the International Space Station in 2019 | Source: Roscosmos
Since complete differentiation from a stem cell to a muscle cell takes about three weeks, while the Rakia Mission only lasted a week, the cells did not complete the entire development cycle in space. Aleph Farms researchers simultaneously conducted a similar experimental system on Earth, and with the completion of the Rakia Mission, upon getting their system back, they are now able to compare between the two experiments. The only difference between the experiments is be that one was conducted in microgravity while the other was conducted on Earth, and will therefore allow to see how space conditions affected the processes of differentiation and development of the cells
The actual experiment is a closed and autonomous system and thus it requires very little work on the part of the astronaut who operates it and who is required only to activate the experiment and monitor its progress. The future advantage of such a system is that it already contains all the necessary resources, and will not require much maintenance and operational time.
Very little work for the astronaut. Astronaut Eytan Stibbe on a tour of the Aleph Farms factory in preparation to the Rakia Mission | Photo: Noy Einav, Aleph Farms
The Food of the Future
Alongside the Rakia Mission experiment, Aleph Farms are already running full steam ahead with their next challenge - developing a system on a much larger scale which will be able to provide cultured steak to a team of four astronauts each week, throughout a three-year space mission. The company is developing this system in collaboration with the American food company Astreas. The joint development has already advanced to the second stage of the challenge posed by the American space agency NASA to develop food for deep space missions.
“This system will be several square meters in size and compatible with the size of long duration spaceships”, Tamari explains. “Our goal is for the system to internally recycle almost all the water used for the cultivation of the meat, such that it will require very few external resources. Additionally, it will enable the astronauts to be involved in the process and to select the seasoning and flavor of the meat. It also makes it possible to change the meat’s composition according to need, for example by adding certain vitamins to it or reducing the amount of saturated fat”.
Distant vision. Simulation of a meat cultivation farm on Mars using the technology currently being developed at the Technion and in Rehovot | Simulation: Aleph Farms
“The name of our company, Aleph, was chosen because it also means “Ox” in Hebrew, and the letter Aleph in ancient Hebrew was based on the drawing of an ox’s head”, explains Tamari. “The first letter symbolizes leadership and a pioneering spirit, and that is our goal: To be pioneers and leaders in the cultured meat market and to use it to improve life on Earth, and enable people to receive quality nutrition at any time, wherever they travel”.