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Mars astronauts could use lettuce to combat one of space’s big threats

A special type of lettuce could help anyone heading to Mars stay healthy.

Sciepro/Scientific photo library

The year 2030 could mark the time when humans finally take their first steps on Mars – according to NASA’s timeline, that is. Elon Musk’s recent estimate falls a year earlier, in 2029. But no matter when it happens, we know one thing for sure.

Astronauts bound for Mars will have a long journey in space ahead of them, subjected to microgravity for months. These conditions will put the pioneers at risk of significant bone loss. But there may be a tasty, crunchy and healthy solution.

On Tuesday at the American Chemical Society’s spring meeting, scientists presented their plan for a new transgenic lettuce. It’s similar to the salad ingredient we know and love, but genetically engineered to prevent bone loss – and it can be grown directly in space. Eating the plant would be like collecting a video game power-up that protects against microgravity threats.

“It’s a very simple and cost-effective way to make a drug,” said Karen McDonald, a chemist at the University of California, Davis and one of the researchers behind the plant, during a briefing. press Tuesday.

Mars astronauts could use lettuce to combat one of space’s big threats

This lettuce produces a bone-stimulating hormone that could help alleviate bone loss in space and on Earth.

Kevin Yates

On Earth, our body maintains a balance between breaking down minerals in our bones and repairing the elements to ensure we always get the nutrients we need. In microgravity, however, this equation loses its harmony. Breakdown of bone minerals still occurs, but subsequent repairs cannot follow, resulting in loss of overall bone density.

To counteract such bone loss in space, astronauts often exercise on their spacecraft. The International Space Station, for example, has a bicycle, a treadmill and a special weightlifting machine. But in the new study, the researchers note that there is not enough evidence to support that exercise is sufficient to prevent reduction in bone density.

That’s why space explorers also carry syringes of drugs that have what’s called human parathyroid hormone, or PTH, in the mix. Basically, PTH helps stimulate bone formation, but this therapy has its own drawbacks. This forces you to take injections every day, which is not ideal. With the team’s new lettuce concoction, on the other hand, each day “an astronaut would need to eat about eight cups of lettuce to get the right dose,” Kevin Yates, who is also a chemist at the University of California , Davis, said at the press conference.

Mars astronauts could use lettuce to combat one of space’s big threats

Astronaut Steven Hawley runs on a treadmill on the middeck of Space Shuttle Columbia. The exercise is part of an experiment to evaluate the treadmill’s vibration isolation system as planned equipment for the International Space Station.


Preparing lettuce for space travel

“We decided to use lettuce because lettuce is a plant that was grown on the International Space Station,” McDonald said. “It’s also a very productive plant in terms of seed production, so our idea is that if we create a transgenic plant, one seed can generate thousands of seeds.”

And unlike standard astronaut drugs, the team’s transgenic lettuce is synthetically engineered to have a gene that correlates with a slight variation in PTH. This variation is a combination of PTH and a protein known as – get ready for a bite – the crystallizable fragment domain of a human antibody. In different ways, Fc helps PTH thrive in the human body.

Mars astronauts could use lettuce to combat one of space’s big threats

Mizuna lettuce growing aboard the ISS before being harvested and frozen for return to Earth.


Once the team had their synthetic gene ready to go, they used a common gene-coding method to transfer it into the regular lettuce genome, they explained, and then grew lettuce plants to from the seeds of the first lettuce, harvested seeds from these plants and the story continues. Additionally, to ensure that the PTH-Fc has successfully entered the plants, they can extract the proteins from the growing lettuce and analyze them.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to explore deep space with a crew of humans without this kind of technology,” Yates said. “It’s not just the lettuce itself, it’s part of a larger way of thinking where we try to use all the resources we have, whether it’s on spacecraft, the moon or Mars.”

And beyond space exploration, the researchers point out that their invention can be given to anyone predisposed to bone loss. “We need ways to produce therapeutics in a simple way, and also at a lower cost, and I think using plants to make therapeutics, such as PTH-Fc, would be very useful here on Earth.” , Yates said.

Before we get to that, however, the team stresses that they must first perform many other tests, such as animal studies, clinical trials, drug optimization and even see how the plant performs. behaves in a space-like environment. In fact, it has yet to be tasted by humans because of these clinical scientific hurdles.

Still, says Yates, “Hopefully it’s just as delicious as regular lettuce and a nice break from the powdery, dehydrated food that long-term space travelers might otherwise eat, most of the time. “


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