12 January - 20 June 2016

Making vegetables more nutritious - in space!

12 Mar 14

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have investigated the effect of exposing leafy vegetables to bright pulses of light, with the aim of increasing levels of zeaxanthin. Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid which cannot be naturally produced by the human body, but is crucial for visual health. Dietary zeaxanthin is a chief protector against cataracts and age-related blindness, which acts by absorbing sunlight safely. Such nutrients to promote eye health are particularly important to astronauts due to the onslaught of eye-damaging radiation they are exposed to during space flight. While there are supplements of carotenoids available, they are not as bioavailable to the body as carotenoids from plant sources. The growing of fresh food in space has also been identified as a factor in maintaining crew morale.

Current research into space-grown vegetables focuses on having the greatest possible yield by providing the optimal light, water and fertiliser conditions. However, plants produce zeaxanthin as a defence compound to safely remove excess light when their leaves are absorbing more sunlight than they can use. The study applied several daily five-minute bursts of higher intensity light to a model plant species, Arabidopsis, which is known to be a good indicator of the behaviour of edible plant species. Compared to a control group of Arabidopsis plants grown under optimal light conditions, it was found that the overall yield was unaffected. However, the production of zeaxanthin saw a 5 fold increase in the plants exposed to high-intensity light bursts. A co-author of the report, E. Lombardi, concluded that this research has the potential to be applied to many crop growing situations where variables can be manipulated, such as urban farms. [Eurekalert], [Gizmag]

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