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SIU team is looking to create NASA’s next food source while in space

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 6:39 PM CDT|Updated: Nov. 5, 2021 at 11:13 AM CDT
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CARBONDALE, Ill. (KFVS) - A research team at Southern Illinois University is looking at new ways to feed astronauts.

It’s a NASA funded project that is aimed at creating nourishing, good tasting food for longer missions.

“Wow, it’s like amazing,” said SIU Microbiology Professor Lahiru Jayakody.

That was his initial reaction when he found out he and his team would be working with NASA.

NASA is funding the university’s “Micro Bites” team.

SIU Micro Bites team is 1 of 18 nationwide programs to work on a machine that would use microbial processes and recycled carbon to provide quality food to astronauts on future missions.

“NASA has the huge challenge to basically reinvent the food production system. They are targeting to have a new food production system that could be used in very challenging environments,” said Jayakody.

However, as you can imagine this process is tough to create.

“You have to use less water, you have produce low waste and less energy so this is a very huge challenge,” said Jayakody.

One of Jayakody’s colleagues enjoys the collaboration.

“And you know you have to admit anything with NASA is kind of cool right? So, it’s just been really exciting to see that team come together to be a part of that and to see the infrastructure and the students and the faculty on campus come together to make that happen,” said McCarroll.

The study is in the early stages, so right now they are brainstorming ideas.

“At this stage we’re looking at kind of like a protein bar type thing as a first stab just to make sure the process works. But I like to think about more exciting things so there’s a lot of you look at Beyond meat and Impossible burger and a lot of things that are made out of plan protein,” said McCarroll.

Jayakody shared an example of how they are trying to make the food tasty for those in space.

“For example, they are trying to send the astronaut to Mars. It’s going to be a 3-year long process so they have to survive. So, they are trying to think how they can get food to astronaut which nourished, tasty, flavorful and looks good,” said Jayakody.

The Universities Fermentation Science lab building will play a major role in this process.

“The building has fermentation’s science; we also have the bio launch facility, which has a biotech core facility that Dr. Jayakody is leading to put that together. And then also the core analytical facility. So, in this building we’ll have all the infrastructure not only to do the bio engineering, the production but also the tasting, the testing and then final flavor analysis of the products,” said McCarroll.

Currently. the team is in phase 1, but they will receive $25,000 to pursue its phase two design for NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge.

The Micro Bites team hopes to have things up and running soon.

“We are planning to have this system together and running in what you call a kitchen level and we going to do that probably next summer,” said Jayakody.

This out of the world research could also help people on Earth.

“This challenge is not only to produce food for astronauts, we trying to produce food, extreme environment in planet. Think about the places you cannot grow you know certain places we cannot grow the product, right?” said Jayakody.

This process is not just going to happen overnight. This project will be worked on for the next 3 to 4 years.

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