Duckweed is an incredible, radiation-fighting astronaut food — and by changing how it is grown, we made it better

This article was initially revealed at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.Barbara Demmig-Adams, Professor of Plant Ecology and Molecular Biology, University of Colorado BoulderThe Research Brief is a brief take about attention-grabbing tutorial work.What’s the massive concept?Current industrialized food programs had been optimized for a single objective – rising the utmost quantity of food for the least sum of money. But when room and provides are restricted — like throughout area journey — you must optimize for a distinct set of targets to satisfy the wants of the individuals you are attempting to feed.NASA and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health requested my lab to determine how to develop an edible plant for long-term area missions the place contemporary, nutritious food have to be produced in tight quarters and with restricted sources. To do that, we turned to a plant known as duckweed.Duckweed is a small floating plant that grows on the floor of ponds. It is generally eaten in Asia however is principally thought-about a pest plant within the U.S. as it can rapidly take over ponds. But duckweed is a outstanding plant. It is one of many fastest-growing crops on Earth, is probably the most protein–dense plant on the planet and additionally produces an abundance of necessary micronutrients. Two of those micronutrients are the inflammation-fighting antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein. Zeaxanthin is the stronger of the 2, however is arduous to get from most leafy greens since fast-growing crops accumulate zeaxanthin solely underneath extraordinarily brilliant lights.I proposed to the Translational Research Institute for Space Health that along with maximizing dietary, area and useful resource effectivity, we additionally attempt to optimize the manufacturing of those antioxidants.With just a bit little bit of experimentation, our crew decided that underneath comparatively low-intensity mild — lower than half as intense as noon solar on a transparent summer season day — duckweed accumulates extra zeaxanthin than different fast-growing crops do in full daylight whereas nonetheless sustaining the identical unbelievable progress charge and different dietary attributes that make it the right plant for an area farm.[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]We are additionally testing one other technique that might develop duckweed in even lower-intensity mild however would complement these mild ranges with a few pulses of high-intensity mild. In different crops, my crew found that this may set off excessive quantities of zeaxanthin accumulation and quick progress and, related to a spaceship, would price much less vitality.From these experiments, we are planning a number of custom-made progress circumstances to optimize zeaxanthin manufacturing for a wide range of completely different functions — whether or not it be a spaceship a greenhouse and even open air.Duckweed grows simply as quick underneath energy-efficient low-intensity mild (high left) as it does underneath brilliant lights (backside proper). (Image credit score: Dr. Jared J. Stewart, CC BY-ND)Why does it matter?Due to the ionizing radiation in area, astronauts are inclined to power irritation and ailments triggered by mobile oxidation. Zeaxanthin and lutein have been proven to combat radiation harm in addition to eye illness, one other frequent well being downside that astronauts expertise.Many important micronutrients have a finite shelf life — usually only some months. As astronauts start happening longer missions, the one method they may be capable to get these antioxidants is to develop them on board.What nonetheless isn’t recognized?While we know that intense mild makes duckweed and different crops produce zeaxanthin, crops rapidly take away it from their leaves when mild ranges drop. To meet the precise problem of manufacturing massive quantities of zeaxanthin, extra work is wanted on how to coax leafy greens to retain zeaxanthin post-harvest.What’s subsequent?Duckweed is a remarkably environment friendly producer of necessary vitamins, however any plant may very well be studied and optimized to be extra nutritious and use fewer sources. (Image credit score: Dr. Marina López-Pozo, CC BY-ND)Our undertaking used duckweed grown in sterile environments — we used crops stripped of the microbes that usually happen within the water on which duckweeds float. Since researchers know that optimizing soil microbes can improve plant productiveness, our subsequent objective can be to discover alternatives to additional improve duckweed productiveness by experimenting with useful microbial communities.Duckweed is already grown for a lot of makes use of on Earth, and duckweed salad is perhaps a high-protein staple within the diets of many future area explorers. But this work is additionally proof that win-win options to food manufacturing are doable.With the correct know-how, it is doable to make small adjustments to a couple variables in how crops are grown and get them to supply extra micronutrients. Similar approaches taken with different crops may benefit individuals internationally, not simply astronauts. On Earth, slight adjustments in how individuals develop food, backed by scientific analysis like ours, supply alternatives to enormously enhance food manufacturing programs such that they want much less, produce extra and maintain individuals more healthy.This article is republished from The Conversation underneath a Creative Commons license. Read the unique article.Follow the entire Expert Voices points and debates — and grow to be a part of the dialogue — on Facebook and Twitter. The views expressed are these of the writer and don’t essentially mirror the views of the writer.  

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