Maggie Coblentz

COSMIC FERMENTATION



Flavor and culture evolve through the migration of ingredients to outer space.






Microbes on our hands mirror the microbes within our environment. 






An exploration of how people, microbes, and the space environment shape one another. This research includes a device for fermenting in space, and a space fermentation mission launching miso to the International Space Station and back down to Earth.






Aspergillus oryzae, also known as kōji mold is a filamentous fungus used to saccharify rice and ferment soybeans for making miso.









Tapestries of mold line the inside of the International Space Station.
IMAGE COURTESY NASA







I. Terroir






The International Space Station (ISS) is filled with life—microbial stowaways that astronauts carry with them to space. On their skin, in their guts.

The concept of terroir is used to define artisanal food products, the environmental factors and contextual characteristics that affect a crop’s observable traits, such as wine grape varieties and fermented food. We explore through our senses first, and it’s curious to imagine the terroir of places travelled in space, to bring them to life through taste and smell.



TERROIR: THE ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS AND CONTEXTUAL CHARACTERISTICS THAT AFFECT A CROP’S OBSERVABLE TRAITS

MICROBIAL TERROIR: THE MICROBIAL COMMUNITY ASSOCIATED WITH A PLACE, WHICH COULD COME TO SHAPE FOOD PRODUCTS MADE THERE.









Left: Soil characteristics are one of the the environmental conditions that give ingredients a unique flavor and aroma.

Right: Grape vines come to be shaped by the region in which they grow. 










Viktor Savinykh with his Arabidopsis plant for an Astrobotany experiment on Salyut-7.
IMAGE COURTESY NASA










How might the ISS, and the people in the ISS shape the characteristics of food, to invite a new food culture?




II. Fermentation






To begin to define the terroir of space, it is intruiguing to look through the lens of fermentation. This research highlights opportunities to bring the rich culture of Earth-based fermentation practices to space to design beneficial applications for astronauts and novel ways of producing new flavor.  

Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of food preservation and preparation, giving food a variety of sensory attributes, such as flavors and textures, and nutritional values. It’s largely impacted by the environment, with temperature, humidity, and air quality being the main factors.



FERMENTATION: A METABOLIC PROCESS THAT PRODUCES CHEMICAL CHANGES IN ORGANIC SUBSTRATES THROUGH THE ACTION OF ENZYMES.




In food production, fermentation is the process of transforming organic substrates such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids or other types of organic material through the action of enzymes (biochemical catalysts), produced by different microorganisms. Different compounds are formed by microorganisms during fermentation, and these by-products can change the texture , and the flavor of the food sample. Together, these molecules produce another product completely different in relation to the initial substrate and generally serve to inhibit possible spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms.

To support future crews on long duration deep space missions, they will require advanced space food systems to provide nourishment and improve the quality of limited fresh ingredients. In space, fermentation could help repurpose food waste for a closed-loop system, preserve limited fresh ingredients, diversify food selection, grow nutrients, and improve astronaut gut health.



Fermentation could build new narratives around space travel, to expand on the limited histories contained within present freeze dried space food menu. 










The Fermentation Chamber is an environmental sensing box.











Industrial distillery on Planet Earth.







III. Fermentation Chamber






On Earth much of fermentation is about scaling up to the industrial scale. In contrast, fermentation equipment and processes for the ISS need to be miniaturized.

It is difficult and often impossible to grow fresh produce in space environments and there is limited access to supply chains and food variability. Custom equipment could help crews grow food with minimal infrastructure as an alternative to transporting freeze-dried food from Earth.

The Space Fermentation Chamber was built to house fermented food in the International Space Station and capture environmental data. It is equipped with sensors including temperature, humidity, and radition, and a camera to capture visual changes to the surface of the food sample.




Fermentation Chamber is equipped with sensors to capture environmental data.




A second prototype is in development, as a life support system for fermentations in space, to not only sense the environment, but help manage it with temperature controls and an off-gasing system.





Sensors were intalled in the Fermentation Chamber to capture data on the environment of the International Space Station.








IV. Space Miso







Left: Traditional Japanese miso barrels.

Right: Space miso sample is prepared for an experiment in the ISS.








At midnight, on March 6, 2020, I looked up towards the sky as the space miso launched from the Kennedy Space Center.








The miso sample from the ISS, and two ground control samples from Cambridge, United States, and Copenhagen, Denmark.










To explore how new flavors may evolve as earth foods migrate to outer space, researchers Maggie Coblentz and Joshua Evans collaborated to map the emergence of space terroir.

At the time of the space mission, Maggie Coblentz specialized in interplanetary gastronomy and zero gravity food, and Joshua Evans studied how culinary innovators pursue new flavours through diverse fermentation techniques and novel ingredients.

They wondered how the highly specific environment of the International Space Station might give rise to new microbial ecologies and evolution?

To begin to explore this, Coblentz and Evans selected miso as their first space traveller. Miso fit their experiment design, and was Josh’s specialty, providing them with a set of data in which to ground their research.

A sample of miso was sent to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-20 launch in spring 2020 for a 30 day internal mission, and compared to two control samples on the ground.

On March 6, 2020, Coblentz travelled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the space miso sample launch into space on the SpaceX CRS-20. Just a few short days later, on March 8, the rocket docked with the space station to be greeted by astronauts who loaded it onto the experiment rack inside the ISS. There it lived for the next thirty days, growing with time, as Coblentz and Evans remained on the ground with their control samples.



MISO: TRADITIONAL JAPANESE SEASONING PRODUCED BY FERMENTING SOYBEANS WITH SALT AND KŌJI.




The samples were contained in individual chambers equipped with sensors to collect environmental data including radiation, temperature, humidity, pressure, gas, air quality (VOC and CO2), and observable visual changes to the surface.






Space miso sample prepared for ISS.




The initial sensory analysis revealed that the space miso looked, smelled, and tasted entirely different than its Earth-bound controls.




Through sequencing and analysis of the miso, Coblentz and Evans will test what ecological changes may have occurred within the population of fungi, bacteria, and yeast, in addition to changes within the flavor chemistry. Results will be published later this year.











By Maggie Coblentz 


Space Fermentation Contributors:
Patrick Chwalek, System Engineer
Peter Dilworth, Mechanical Engineer
Jamie Milliken, Electrical Engineer 

Space Miso Contributors: 
Joshua Evans, Collaborator 
Nabila Valeron Rodríguez, Collaborator


This research and International Space Station flight mission was supported by the MIT Space Exploration Initiative and the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute of Space Health (TRISH).









Copyright Maggie Coblentz, 2022.