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 Post subject: What's for Dinner?
PostPosted: Mon Dec 31, 2012 12:45 pm 
Broken Crown Panelist
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What's for Dinner?
Explorers are set to launch into space for a very long journey, and you can guarantee that scientists will have explored many ways to produce a reliable food source for the crew. The ability to store high-calorie, high-nutrient food rations for months, or even years, would have been thoroughly investigated at this point. I think it's safe to say that any space mission would always include stored food. The biggest hurdle for the crew may be creating palatable and healthy crops that are sustainable for traveling over very long periods in space. This need would be of high importance for any long distance travel, so you can understand why NASA, and now China, are exploring ways to grow and sustain plants, while traveling through space.

So what kind of plants would we bring? Obviously, our focus would be on plants that are palatable, and edible in many different ways. A plant that can produce edible roots, stems, and leaves, while also providing fruits, and/or seeds would be of the highest value. When we consider that most plants around us are not palatable, and of the subset that we use for crops, there are not many that fit this description. Most plants are harvested for a single part, and the rest of the plant is either composted or fed to livestock. For example, crops like corn, tomatoes, wheat, potatoes, squash are all harvested for a single part. This doesn't even consider the size and space restrictions of growing these crops as they currently exist. Some plants, such as those in the mustard family (Brassicaeae), have varieties with edible roots, buds, leaves, and seeds. For example, Brussels sprouts, kale, turnip, and cabbage all come from this family; even the same genus. These are compact plants, with a short life-cycle, and are nutritious; plus we know a lot about the genetics of this family from work on Arabidopsis (I hope space explorers enjoy bitter crops). In the end, we may need to bio-engineer plants to meet these demands, since the working list is so limited.

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Which growth systems would work best? These plants would need to be able to survive artificial growing systems, possibly in reduced gravity environments. Plants evolved many passive mechanisms that are dependent on the specific gravity of Earth, and low gravity environments can interfere with gas exchange in leaves and roots, as well as water movement through the plant. Nothing can be taken for granted, and we can assume that researchers will find low energy solutions to these problems. For example, explorers might opt for some kind of closed hydroponics systems, that is constantly replenishing water, minerals, and gases (see below). Research has shown that this is the most efficient way of growing concentrated plants on Earth, but this system requires a plant can handle a non-soil environment, which (once again) can be challenging for many of our favorite food crops.

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Symbiosis goes a long way... Another possibility could be creating soils with robust fungal and bacterial components. It appears that NASA scientists are already looking at the relationships between plant roots and bacteria while in space with the Symbiotic Nodulation in a Reduced Gravity Environment Project. I would guess that there are researchers are also looking at fungi, since most plants also have an association with soil fungi, called mycorrhizae (see image below). Researchers would want to maintain this mutualism to insure the healthiest, fastest growing plants possible. In return, the explorers would be supplemented with the occasional mushroom or morel, the “fruiting bodies” of these symbiotic fungi. Although beneficial, keeping these relationships would be a critical, but daunting challenge.

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Mustard greens again?!?! Lastly, these explorers would want to create an environment that produces a diversity of plant types to enhance their palate and health. They may have to deal with the doldrums of space, but food would bring a desirable highlight to the “day”. Creating such a diversity could also prove difficult, and the explorers may find themselves producing a type of permaculture, called an edible forest system, such as those found on Earth (see below). These systems create a tiered approach, by which rows of different species are also structured so that taller fruit or nut producing trees, shade shorter fruiting producing shrubs and vines, which border smaller herbaceous crops that we see on farms. This diversity would still seem limited after months in space, but it most travelers, and in old times, would learn to cope with the availability.

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In the end, any system that explorers adopt would have steep challenges: finding or creating diverse crops with diverse uses that can survive low gravity and artificial environments. The crew on this journey would need to have personnel with a strong background in agriculture in order to insure the survival during journey, and the establishment of crops on the new world... that's our next stop.


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 Post subject: Re: What's for Dinner?
PostPosted: Fri Jan 25, 2013 9:17 pm 
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Hi Jamie, I was wondering if we were going to take a long trip in space that could take years say, wouldn't we need higher amounts of protein to help keep our muscles strong considering you would loose muscle mass the longer your in space, and for the reason, if we set off to the visit a planet, that we would actually have the strength to walk on it when we get there especially if it has gravity like ours or heavier lol. Would the plants provide enough protein? And what about growing algae, it's high in protein and some varieties can be grown with low light. And here on the weirder side in the medical field scientist been experimenting growing organs from cells and using some from animals, you think it would be possible in the future to grow meat from animals? Yea little weird and kinda gross,.... mmm genetically grown meat lol


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 Post subject: Re: What's for Dinner?
PostPosted: Fri Feb 01, 2013 12:38 pm 
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Hi Devioussqurl,
I think you are correct about the need for protein on these journeys, but I doubt it will come from animals, at least vertebrates. The bean family (Fabaceae) will play a large role in providing this for us. These plants tend to scrappy, quick growing, and can self-pollinate (the main reason every school teacher grows them). There are many other plants that are high in protein. To revisit the mustard family, both broccoli and cauliflower, are also good sources, and let's not forget the protein-rich spinach in the Amaranth family. This latter family is very weedy and tough, and has been used by human for 1000s of years.

Regarding algae, I think you may find the technology of the day using them for two purposes. Unicellular algae in the top 2-3 feet of water of the oceans provide most of our oxygen. This is contrary to our notion of trees providing all the oxygen. Algae would be crucial to the replenishment of oxygen supplies, and are relatively easy to grow. I'm sure someone could create a way to convert these unicells into food, but most algae that we eat today, such as nori or seaweed salad, are harder to grow in captivity due to size and environmental requirements.

Last but not least, genetically engineered meat, yum! I'm sure it's just a matter of time before faux meat from a lab-based process is commercially available. Who knows, it may be great tasting, high in protein, and low in cholesterol, but probably not at first. Do you remember what the first veggie burgers tasted like? ugh!


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