News Space-grown lettuce is as safe and nutritious as Earth lettuce, new research shows


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In August 2015, Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui trimmed a few leaves of red romaine lettuce and passed them to NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren. Each drizzled a few drops of dressing onto the precious produce, then popped it directly into their mouths.

“That’s awesome, tastes good,” Lindgren said.

The International Space Station (ISS) harvest was too scant for a proper space salad, especially since half the crop was sent back to Earth for scientific analysis, but the munchies marked a milestone in human spaceflight. It was the first time an orbiting crop was grown with NASA hardware and then eaten. (Though scientists suspect astronauts might have stolen a few bites from a previous sample.)

We now know that space lettuce doesn’t just taste good. It’s also safe to eat and as nutritious as lettuce grown back on Earth, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

From 2014 to 2016, astronauts grew “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce inside the ISS Vegetable Production System chambers, or Veggie. Meanwhile, scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center ran a control experiment that tried to precisely replicate Veggie’s conditions by beaming temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide measurements back to Earth.

When NASA researchers tested both versions of the lettuce, they found the space-grown variety was strikingly similar to the ground-grown controls. Each had equivalent levels of nutrients and antioxidants. Cutting-edge DNA analysis even showed that the space lettuce also developed the same diverse microbial communities as its terrestrial counterpart. Researchers say that caught them by surprise. They’d expected the ISS’ unique environment to allow unique microbial communities to thrive there. And neither crops showed signs of potentially problematic bacteria like E. coli.

But researchers say they still have a long way to go before astronauts can help themselves to a cosmic salad bar. This lettuce was a kind of gateway plant. It’s easier and faster to grow than most fruiting crops, yet it thrives in similar conditions. Now scientists need to figure out how to nurture slower-growing plants.

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