Next-generation space superfood inspired by Japan’s aging population

Postbiotic metabolites could be "crucial to survival during extended space travel," Mars City Design founder Vera Mulyani told IE.
Chris Young
AI illustration: Astronaut with food for space travel.
AI illustration: Astronaut with food for space travel.

AI/Yazan al Sayed 

  • Mars City Design and Innovation Labo Tokyo teamed up to develop a superfood supplement for space.
  • Their initiative, the Astrobiome Space Project, will develop space medicine and culinary innovations for the future of space travel.
  • The development of their new postbiotic metabolite supplement was partly influenced by Japan's centenarian population.

With NASA, SpaceX, and others looking to take human space exploration to the next level, new solutions are required to help future astronauts survive for months and even years in harsh space environments.

Dietary requirements will be a particularly challenging aspect of long missions to Mars and other parts of the solar system. With current technologies, it would take humans roughly nine months to reach the red planet, meaning they would need to do everything in their power to stay as healthy and active as possible.

Mars City Design and Innovation Labo Tokyo recently collaborated to launch the Astrobiome Space Project with this in mind. The project's goal is to create space medicine, microbiome technology, and culinary innovations for future space travel.

“Numerous studies demonstrate how human bodies deteriorate over time in the space environment,” Mars City Design CEO and founder Vera Mulyani explained to Interesting Engineering (IE) over email.

“We are simply not designed to live off-Earth!”

The key to fighting this problem, according to Mulyani and the team at the Astrobiome Space Project, is to tap into the importance of gut health by using super-postbiotic metabolites.

A superfood for space travel

Space exploration is undeniably damaging to the human body over extended periods of time. Though the longest-serving International Space Station (ISS) crew member spent more than a year aboard the orbital space station, the ISS is relatively protected by Earth’s magnetic field

Go further out into space, and you’re not only contending with the effects of microgravity; the human body is also subjected to a barrage of space radiation.

“The most concerning immediate impacts [of space travel] are the damage created by cosmic radiation and the unsolicited adaptation of our body to microgravity,” Mulyani told IE. “Both cause tangible physical results such as cancer, bone loss, inflammation, and neurodegeneration, causing cognitive and visual impairment and countless other long-term possible health issues.”

Next-generation space superfood inspired by Japan’s aging population
A space farming concept render.

While some actions, such as undertaking physical exercise in space, can help mitigate the effects of prolonged space travel, a different approach may be required. “Instead of mitigating the different symptoms, we may need to strategically treat the root cause of our overall physical issues at the microscopic level,” Mulyani explained.

Recent studies have pointed out that our gut and digestive health are linked to mood and mental health in a bidirectional communication network – meaning they both affect each other and must be considered in relation to one another.

With this context in mind, the Astrobiome Project is developing super-postbiotic metabolites that can be used as an ingredient in food and also as a fertilizer for crops — on Earth and also in space.

Mulyani described Astrobiome as “the first postbiotic in the world that is created with a high precision of complex co-culturing fermentation method.”

It “directly delivers the most crucial “food” to our mitochondria, skipping the probiotic process where live bacteria can be inefficient at doing the job within the hosts’ intestine, [especially] when the host is living in such extreme conditions such as space travel or simply has a poor diet.”

This, she said, will help future space explorers “maintain their gut and brain health to increase their overall health and physical, emotional, and cognitive performances.”

What’s more, “this immediate delivery of metabolites into our cells is highly needed in order to perform fast recovery and cell regeneration. In long-term applications, the space crews may benefit from epigenetic shifts, thanks to their now more resilient mitochondria, as an outcome of taking these metabolites.” This, she continued, is “crucial to survival during extended space travel.” 

How Japan’s centenarian population will influence space travel

The development of Astrobiome’s supplement was partly guided by research into Japan’s growing centenarian population. Last year, official figures showed that there were more than 90,000 Japanese citizens aged 100 and above and that there was a five-fold increase in centenarians compared with 20 years before. 

“In 2001, our scientist team was studying centenarians in Okinawa to understand how they were able to live long, healthy, and joyful lives,” Mulyani explained. 

Surprisingly, their results went against the widely held belief that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are the sole secret to longevity. 

“The centenarians our scientists met did not necessarily practice the healthiest diet,” Mulyani said.

“On top of that, they were also heavy smokers! Still, they lived long lives, while maintaining a youthful spirit, and carrying out physical activities such as farming. Later, the researchers found out that one of the secrets was the absence of inflammation in their digestive system.”

Testing the properties of postbiotic metabolites in space

Ultimately, Astrobiome is the culmination of years of incremental research into gut health and the potential for postbiotic metabolite supplements in space. 

“Astrobiome is composed of more than 600 unique types of microbiota to feed our mitochondria so that when we take it,” Mulyani said, “we can have a similar level of mitochondria performance and strength of the immune system in our body as those centenarians.”

Aside from that research into Japan’s centenarians, the Astrobiome Space Project and Mars City Design team have rigorously tested the properties of their postbiotic metabolite in recent months.

“Astrobiome delivery formats include supplements for humans, as well as for plants,” Mulyani said.

“For plants, it is in a form of natural fertilizer, a biostimulant in a form of gel, [which is] metabolite based, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.”

One recent study, conducted by Madelyn Whitaker, a Cellular and Biomolecular Engineering Student at Purdue University, and Dr. Marshall Porterfield, Creator of NASA GeneLab, at the Mars Desert Research Station, showed higher performance in plants treated with Astrobiome.

The plants had a noticeably spicier taste (possibly due to the presence of more nutrients and their increased chlorophyll content) and exhibited longer shelf lives as well as reduced water intake and energy requirements, making them better suited for growth in space.

During a blind tasting test, meanwhile, five of six analog astronauts stated they preferred the Astrobiome-treated greens, as they found them to be more vibrant and fresher tasting. 

In the future, Mulyani explained, Mars City Design is “planning to send some microgreens to orbit and apply Astrobiome biostimulant or metabolite-based fertilizer to test its performance under microgravity conditions.”

“We are also planning to test Astrobiome in-vivo for astronauts to measure their level of REM, sleep quality, and regulation of circadian rhythms.”

Since the dawn of the space age, astronauts’ diets have been carefully regulated, and only those candidates in peak physical condition are selected to go into space.

However, on longer trips, this will not be enough to ensure the astronauts stay healthy for the duration of the voyage. As human space exploration evolves and leads to longer journeys, the dietary requirements, foods, and supplements involved in spaceflight will also need to go the distance. 

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