Pull up a seat at the astronaut cafe. What’s on the menu, you ask? Duckweed salad. Duckweed soup. Duckweed omelettes.
A small, protein-packed plant called duckweed may be the ticket to a nutritious meal in space, Barbara Demmig-Adams, a professor of plant ecology and molecular biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes in The Conversation.
NASA and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a cooperative led by researchers from Caltech, MIT, and Baylor College of Medicine, tapped Demmig-Adams and her lab to look into a leafy conundrum: What nutrient-packed plants could astronauts grow with limited resources in the confines of their spaceships?
Duckweed it is. Commonly found in ponds and fish tanks, duckweed is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world—and the most protein-rich, to boot. This is good news for future astronauts who may be tasked with exploring the outer reaches of the solar system.
What’s more, duckweed could actually help astronauts combat the effects of solar and cosmic radiation. The plant is filled with a powerful antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation and support eye health—a critical concern for NASA astronauts.
The tricky thing about growing duckweed (and all plants) in space is getting the conditions just right in order to maximize productivity and nutrient growth. Duckweed needs a lot of bright light to produce its rich suite of antioxidants. This could pose a challenge for astronauts.
For years, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have used their green thumbs to cultivate small crops of leafy greens. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s The Advanced Astroculture™ project, which seeks to understand the effects of microgravity on plant growth, has sent plants like Arabidopsis thaliana (a variety of mustard plant) and soybeans to the ISS.
In addition to the benefits these plants provide to an astronaut’s diet, tending to the plants themselves has provided the space travelers with a relaxing and fulfilling hobby.
Back on Earth, some labs are tweaking the actual genome plants in order to optimize them for growth in orbit. One team of researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has developed a type of cherry tomato that, in order to conserve space, grows in tightly packed bunches on short vines.
Demmig-Adams and her colleagues are exploring the best possible ways to grow duckweed. First, they grew plants in a sterile water, and next, they’ll experiment with introducing different microbes to the environment.
The team is also testing the limits of the light-loving plant by growing it under different lighting conditions. It turns out even in low-intensity light environments, duckweed produces more zeaxanthin than similar plants do on the sunniest of days.
You Might Also Like