This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Barbara Demmig-Adams, Professor of Plant Ecology and Molecular Biology, University of Colorado Boulder
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Current industrialized food systems were optimized for a single goal – growing the maximum amount of food for the least amount of money. But when room and supplies are limited — like during space travel — you need to optimize for a different set of goals to meet the needs of the people you are trying to feed.
NASA and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health asked my lab to figure out how to grow an edible plant for long-term space missions where fresh, nutritious food must be produced in tight quarters and with limited resources. To do this, we turned to a plant called duckweed.
Duckweed is a small floating plant that grows on the surface of ponds. It is commonly eaten in Asia but is mostly considered a pest plant in the U.S. as it can quickly take over ponds. But duckweed is a remarkable plant. It is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, is the most protein–dense plant on the planet and also produces an abundance of important micronutrients. Two of these micronutrients are the inflammation-fighting antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein. Zeaxanthin is the more potent of the two, but is hard to get from most leafy greens since fast-growing plants accumulate zeaxanthin only under extremely bright lights.