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Lettuce in Space Could Help to Protect Astronauts Bones

Researchers have developed a genetically modified form of lettuce that produces a drug to protect against bone density loss in microgravity, which could significantly help astronauts during long space-flights. This exciting research explores the benefits that it could provide and how the genetically modified plant could help to ward off diseases associated with long journeys through space.

(Image by Kevin Yates/UC Davis).

One issue with spending prolonged periods of time in microgravity is that it disrupts the balance between growth and resorption in our bones (essentially a process where old bone is replaced by new bone cells), two things that allow them to respond to injury or changes in exercise. This disruption causes astronauts to lose bone mass, which can only be treated with regular parathyroid hormone (PTH) injections.

The genetically modified lettuce developed by the researchers would help to combat this issue. It has been genetically modified to express a fusion protein combining PTH with a part of a human body protein, and has been designed to be stable in the bloodstream.

Somen Nandi, adjunct professor in the chemical engineering department at the University of California says the design also allows astronauts to potentially purify the drug from plant extracts, which will be useful if a scenario occurs where they are unable to consume the drug orally via the lettuce leaves.  

The new modified lettuce leaves would also make longer spacecraft missions more plausible, for example an expedition to Mars, astronauts would be able to replenish their supplies of PTH via the lettuce leaves, rather than relying on limited supplies of the drug, which have an expiration date. As a result, this will help to maintain astronaut health on long journeys.

Professor Nandi also suggested growing plants in space would help to boost morale, in addition to having pre-packaged food. Already, scientists have dabbled with the idea of growing food in space, with results showing initial success.

Thanks to this discovery, perhaps we will soon be seeing humans venture further into the depths of space…