Research: Add space salad to the risks astronauts face

Research: Add space salad to the risks astronauts face

January 22, 20243 min read

University of Delaware researchers grew lettuce under conditions that imitated the weightless environment aboard the International Space Station and found those plants were actually more prone to infections from Salmonella. 

It’s been more than three years since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration made space-grown lettuce an item on the menu for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Alongside their space diet staples of flour tortillas and powdered coffee, astronauts can munch on a salad, grown from control chambers aboard the ISS that account for the ideal temperature, amount of water and light that plants need to mature.

But as the UD researchers discovered, there is a problem. The International Space Station has a lot of pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Many of these disease-causing microbes at the ISS are very aggressive and can easily colonize the tissue of lettuce and other plants. Once people eat lettuce that’s been overrun by E. coli or Salmonella, they can get sick.

With billions of dollars poured into space exploration each year by NASA and private companies like SpaceX, some researchers are concerned that a foodborne illness outbreak aboard the International Space Station could derail a mission.

In the new study by UD's team, published in Scientific Reports and in npj Microgravity, researchers grew lettuce in a weightless environment similar to that found at the International Space Station. Plants are masters of sensing gravity, and they use roots to find it. The plants grown at UD were exposed to simulated microgravity by rotation. The researchers found those plants under the manufactured microgravity were actually more prone to infections from Salmonella, a human pathogen.

Stomata, the tiny pores in leaves and stems that plants use to breathe, normally close to defend a plant when it senses a stressor, like bacteria, nearby, said Noah Totsline, an alumnus of UD’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences who finished his graduate program in December. When the researchers added bacteria to lettuce under their microgravity simulation, they found the leafy greens opened their stomata wide instead of closing them.

“The fact that they were remaining open when we were presenting them with what would appear to be a stress was really unexpected,” Totsline said.

Totsline, the lead author of both papers, worked with plant biology professor Harsh Bais as well as microbial food safety professor Kali Kniel and Chandran Sabanayagam of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. The research team used a device called a clinostat to rotate plants at the speed of a rotisserie chicken on a spinner.

“In effect, the plant would not know which way was up or down,” Totsline said. “We were kind of confusing their response to gravity.”

Additionally, Bais and other UD researchers have shown the usage of a helper bacteria called B. subtilis UD1022 in promoting plant growth and fitness against pathogens or other stressors such as drought.

They added the UD1022 to the microgravity simulation that on Earth can protect plants against Salmonella, thinking it might help the plants fend off Salmonella in microgravity.

Instead, they found the bacterium actually failed to protect plants in space-like conditions, which could stem from the bacteria’s inability to trigger a biochemical response that would force a plant to close its stomata.

“The failure of UD1022 to close stomata under simulated microgravity is both surprising and interesting and opens another can of worms,” Bais said. “I suspect the ability of UD1022 to negate the stomata closure under microgravity simulation may overwhelm the plant and make the plant and UD1022 unable to communicate with each other, helping Salmonella invade a plant.”

To contact researchers from the team, visit the profiles for Bais or Kniel and click on the contact button.

Connect with:
  • Harsh Bais
    Harsh Bais Associate Professor, Plant and Soil Sciences

    Prof. Bais conducts research in plant signaling – how plants recognize and communicate with one another.

  • Kali Kniel
    Kali Kniel Professor, Microbial Food Safety

    Prof. Kniel’s laboratory explores issues of food safety and public health that involve transmission of viruses and pathogenic bacteria.

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