To solve the problem of feeding astronauts on long-duration missions, NASA started the Deep Space Food Challenge in January 2021, asking companies to propose novel ways to develop sustainable foods for future missions. About 200 companies entered—a field that was whittled down to 11 teams in January 2023 as part of phase 2, with eight US teams each given $20,000 in funding and three additional international teams also recognized. On May 19, NASA is set to announce the teams that will progress into the final phase of the contest, with a handful of winners to be announced in April 2024 following more detailed tests of their proposals.
“Phase 2 was kind of a kitchen-level demonstration,” says Angela Herblet at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the project manager for the challenge. “Phase 3 is going to challenge the teams to scale their technologies.”
Entrants had to show systems that could operate for three years and feed a crew of four on a prospective space mission. The proposals did not need to supply a crew’s entire diet, but they did need to create a variety of nutritious foods for the astronauts. Earlier this year, judges then visited each company to “see the food and really analyze it,” says Herblet.
One company took a particularly unusual approach to the task. Air Company, based in New York and one of the eight US-based finalists, designed a system that could use the carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts in space to produce alcohol, which could then be used to grow edible food. The company already develops alcohols from CO2 for plane fuel and perfume.
“It’s making food out of air,” says Stafford Sheehan, cofounder and chief technology officer of Air Company. “It sounds like magic, but when you see it actually operating, it’s much more simple. We’re taking CO2, combining it with water and electricity, and making proteins.”
The Download: child online safety laws, and ClimateTech is coming
Matt Kaeberlein is what you might call a dog person. He has grown up with dogs and describes his German shepherd, Dobby, as “really special.” But Dobby is 14 years old—around 98 in dog years.
Kaeberlein is co-director of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious research effort to track the aging process of tens of thousands of companion dogs across the US. He is one of a handful of scientists on a mission to improve, delay, and possibly reverse that process to help them live longer, healthier lives.
And dogs are just the beginning. One day, this research could help to prolong the lives of humans. Read the full story.
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Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
The technology would likely be used first on infants born at 22 or 23 weeks who don’t have many other options. “You don’t want to put an infant on this device who would otherwise do well with conventional therapy,” Mychaliska says. At 22 weeks gestation, babies are tiny, often weighing less than a pound. And their lungs are still developing. When researchers looked at babies born between 2013 and 2018, survival among those who were resuscitated at 22 weeks was 30%. That number rose to nearly 56% at 23 weeks. And babies born at that stage who do survive have an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems, cerebral palsy, mobility problems, hearing impairments, and other disabilities.
Selecting the right participants will be tricky. Some experts argue that gestational age shouldn’t be the only criteria. One complicating factor is that prognosis varies widely from center to center, and it’s improving as hospitals learn how best to treat these preemies. At the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, for example, survival rates are much higher than average: 64% for babies born at 22 weeks. They’ve even managed to keep a handful of infants born at 21 weeks alive. “These babies are not a hopeless case. They very much can survive. They very much can thrive if you are managing them appropriately,” says Brady Thomas, a neonatologist at Stead. “Are you really going to make that much of a bigger impact by adding in this technology, and what risks might exist to those patients as you’re starting to trial it?”
Prognosis also varies widely from baby to baby depending on a variety of factors. “The girls do better than the boys. The bigger ones do better than the smaller ones,” says Mark Mercurio, a neonatologist and pediatric bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine. So “how bad does the prognosis with current therapy need to be to justify use of an artificial womb?” That’s a question Mercurio would like to see answered.
What are the risks?
One ever-present concern in the tiniest babies is brain bleeds. “That’s due to a number of factors—a combination of their brain immaturity, and in part associated with the treatment that we provide,” Mychaliska says. Babies in an artificial womb would need to be on a blood thinner to prevent clots from forming where the tubes enter the body. “I believe that places a premature infant at very high risk for brain bleeding,” he says.
And it’s not just about the baby. To be eligible for EXTEND, infants must be delivered via cesarean section, which puts the pregnant person at higher risk for infection and bleeding. Delivery via a C-section can also have an impact on future pregnancies.
So if it works, could babies be grown entirely outside the womb?
Not anytime soon. Maybe not ever. In a paper published in 2022, Flake and his colleagues called this scenario “a technically and developmentally naive, yet sensationally speculative, pipe dream.” The problem is twofold. First, fetal development is a carefully choreographed process that relies on chemical communication between the pregnant parent’s body and the fetus. Even if researchers understood all the factors that contribute to fetal development—and they don’t—there’s no guarantee they could recreate those conditions.
The second issue is size. The artificial womb systems being developed require doctors to insert a small tube into the infant’s umbilical cord to deliver oxygenated blood. The smaller the umbilical cord, the more difficult this becomes.
What are the ethical concerns?
In the near term, there are concerns about how to ensure that researchers are obtaining proper informed consent from parents who may be desperate to save their babies. “This is an issue that comes up with lots of last-chance therapies,” says Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute.
The Download: brain bandwidth, and artificial wombs
Last week, Elon Musk made the bold assertion that sticking electrodes in people’s heads is going to lead to a huge increase in the rate of data transfer out of, and into, human brains.
The occasion of Musk’s post was the announcement by Neuralink, his brain-computer interface company, that it was officially seeking the first volunteer to receive an implant that contains more than twice the number of electrodes than previous versions to collect more data from more nerve cells.
The entrepreneur mentioned a long-term goal of vastly increasing “bandwidth” between people, or people and machines, by a factor of 1,000 or more. But what does he mean, and is it even possible? Read the full story.
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Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
Earlier this month, US Food and Drug Administration advisors met to discuss how to move research on artificial wombs from animals into humans.
These medical devices are designed to give extremely premature infants a bit more time to develop in a womb-like environment before entering the outside world. They have been tested with hundreds of lambs (and some piglets), but animal models can’t fully predict how the technology will work for humans.