Helikon focuses on cutting-edge biotechnologies that will change the way the world eats. This year, the Cultured Meat Symposium hosted its first-ever CMS: Astro, focusing on alternative protein technology within the space industry, which grabbed the attention of many at Helikon! At the conference, one fact was made clear: Mars Needs Milk.
On January 20th, 2020 at 108Labs, mammary cell culture specialists, Dr. Leila Strickland and Shayne Giuliano produced the first cell-cultured product similar to human milk. This simultaneous synthesis of lactose and casein proteins was a monumental breakthrough, unlocking doors to save lives and one day bring life to other planets. So why is this discovery so important for life on Mars?
Human milk can sustain human life. After the conception of a Martian colony, the human population will need to be able to expand and produce their own resources in a closed environment, and infant health is one of the most important factors for population growth. Bovine milk, commonly consumed and used in infant formulas on Earth is not an option for Martian populations. Transporting either cows or their milk would be massively inefficient to transport to any Martian colony. Therefore, cell-cultured human milk would provide a means to nurture an infant population on the red planet. Human milk itself also provides all of the essential nutrients for human babies whereas diets of bovine milk or other formulas are not able to provide sufficient nutrition for human growth and development.
Secondly, in the words of Shayne Giuliano, “Milk is more than a food, it is a therapeutic substance.” When pasteurized, milk does provide a lot of nutrition; however, unpasteurized milk is an effective probiotic and contains antimicrobial properties. This is significant in the (supposedly) sterile Martian environment due to the importance of the human gut microbiome. Antibiotics on Earth decimate a large part of the gut microbiome, but these microbes are able to regenerate through interactions with the world. On Mars, however, the environment is (supposedly) sterile and therefore a total loss of a microbiome for an individual could be fatal. Cultured milk solves this issue. Human milk evolved to kickstart and support microbiome health through the use of antimicrobial proteins to suppress harmful pathogens and probiotic HMO and secretory IgA to support beneficial microbial components. Thus, cultured milk serves extreme value in preserving the health of human microbiomes and an infant Martian population.
“There are more genes producing proteins in our body that come from our microbiome than come from our cells.”
What does this technology mean for today?
Currently, Dr. Leila Strickland has left 108Labs to continue her role as Co-Founder and CSO of Biomilq, an early-stage company looking to produce a full composition milk, outside of the body, for infants. Shayne Giuliano stated that “3,500 babies a day are lost because there is not enough human milk.” Biomilq is poised to solve this issue. By creating a biosimilar milk that can be produced out of the body, the nutritional value and probiotics benefits will become even more widely available to malnourished populations. This technology has the potential to slash infant mortality rates across the globe and vastly reduce health complications associated with early infant malnutrition.
Pursuing this technology also continues to break down barriers for women in STEM. Dr. Leila Strickland stated that Biomilq is committed to its mission of infant nutrition because “we recognize the lack of support for new moms translates directly to opportunity loss for women, as they grapple with competing demands of childbearing and launching a career.” She also went on to cite a startling statistic: “Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after their first child.” This mammary cell culture technology looks to empower women by creating a nutritional alternative to formula, alleviating stress on working women and mothers with difficulty producing milk. With more women able to stay in science, the goal of Milk on Mars becomes substantially more attainable and we at Helikon are excited to watch how this technology impacts the world around us.
Written by Christopher Ix, Business Development Intern, for Helikon Consulting.