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"Light Salad" -- The Discovery Files

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Exposing leafy vegetables grown during spaceflight to a few bright pulses of light daily could increase the amount of eye-protecting nutrients produced by the plants, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Helping plants help themselves.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

A breakthrough from CU-Boulder researchers could solve some major nutritional issues related to deep-space missions. (Sound effect: mission communications sounds) NASA realizes the benefits of being able to grow fresh produce on long flights. Current research has focused on growing large plants quickly by optimizing growing conditions. But there's a trade-off. Without any pathogens or other stresses, the plants don't need to produce defense compounds to help them survive. But those compounds are the antioxidants the astronauts need.

Because of the large amounts of eye-damaging radiation in space, astronauts have to consume foods with high levels of carotenoids. The CU team looked at one particular carotenoid related to eye health: Zeaxanthin.

Using Arabadopsis, a kind of grass, the researchers found that by applying just a few pulses of bright light daily, they could coax the plant's defenses to produce optimum levels of this beneficial compound, without affecting the overall growing conditions.

The plant is simply protecting itself. It almost sees those pulses of light as a warning that it should beef up its defenses against excessive bright light. The findings could help improve nutritional content of certain earthbound crops as well, by prodding plants to do what comes naturally.

Guess it's not enough just to talk to them.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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