Now that humans are considering spending months or years in space to do things like colonizing Mars, we need to start addressing questions like how we’ll be kept fed and healthy once we’re out there. NASA is already looking at growing vegetables in space, but how do we make sure that those foods have good, or even better, nutritional values than their earthly counterparts? Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder are working on it.
One of the side effects of space travel is exposure to radiation that can damage eyesight. In their study, the researchers wanted to boost production of zeaxanthin, a carotenoid known for boosting eye health. And although astronauts could take zeaxanthin in pill form to battle eye damage, human bodies absorb nutrition better from actual food: in this case, green leafy vegetables. So the researchers set out to create vegetables with high levels of zeaxanthin.
The problem with current studies about growing vegetables in space is that they haven’t focused much on nutrition: past research focused on how large and how fast vegetables can be grown in space. Although fast and large are good for space farming, nutrition should also be considered an important factor, particularly considering how hard space travel is on the human body.
The Colorado researchers started with the knowledge that plants create zeaxanthin when under stress, particularly when a plant absorbs more sunlight than it needs. Zeaxanthin acts as a defense mechanism. The experiment used a plant called Arabidopsis, which is often used in such studies as it has similarities to most other edible plants. The researchers subjected each plant to small pulses of bright light every day. In response, the plants produced zeaxanthin, making them more nutritious for consumption. The researchers learned that as long as the pulses of light are kept short, all other growing conditions for the plants remain ideal.
This research, however, isn’t just limited to space. Changing conditions for plants (like amount of light they're exposed to) means that we could manipulate certain factors to make plants here on Earth more nutritious as well, without requiring any genetic manipulation. The idea, instead, is to manipulate the plant’s environment, telling it to do things that are already in its genetic code.