Potential Effects of Biogenic Compound Production on Human Health in Closed Life Support Systems

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Extended habitation of space may include the cultivation of plants for atmospheric regeneration, water purification and food production. Plants produce bioactive compounds that may be released into the atmosphere as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are produced through a variety of plant processes and vary greatly in chemistry and quantity though a plants life cycle. These compounds include numerous biogenic species including alcohols, isoprene, monoterpines, acids, carbonyls, alkanes and alkenes. In a closed environment, VOCs may create a toxic environment for either humans or other plants. Human responses to biogenic compounds may include acute toxicity, chronic toxic toxicity, and allergenic effects. Chronic exposure to low concentrations of biogenic compounds, as might be common during extended space habitation missions, is largely unstudied and of particular interest. The objectives of this paper are to provide an overview of the salient issues regarding potential production of biogenic VOC's, to identify potential responses of humans to these compounds and to assess the overall risk of exposure using epidemiological methodologies. A series of monographs were developed for the most common biogenic VOC's produced for Advanced Life Support (ALS) candidate crops. The monographs describe the compounds, reported sources, SMAC or TLV exposure limit (if established), and reported human responses and toxicity levels. In addition, biogenic responses on plant production systems are reported, if known. Finally, an assessment of potential risk on long duration habitation missions is provided.

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A system and methodology were developed for the nondestructive qualitative and quantitative analysis of volatile emissions from hydroponically grown 'Waldmann's Green' leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.). Photosynthetic photon flux (PPF), photoperiod, and temperature were automatically controlled and monitored in a growth chamber modified for the collection of plant volatiles. The lipoxygenase pathway products (Z)-3-hexenal, (Z)-3-hexenol, and (Z)-3-hexenyl acetate were emitted by lettuce plants after the transition from the light period to the dark period. The volatile collection system developed in this study enabled measurements of volatiles emitted by intact plants, from planting to harvest, under controlled environmental conditions.
The Biomass Production Chamber at John F. Kennedy Space Center is a closed plant growth chamber facility that can be used to monitor the level of biogenic emissions from large populations of plants throughout their entire growth cycle. The head space atmosphere of a 26-day-old lettuce (Lactuca sativa cv. Waldmann's Green) stand was repeatedly sampled and emissions identified and quantified using GC-mass spectrometry. Concentrations of dimethyl sulphide, carbon disulphide, alpha-pinene, furan and 2-methylfuran were not significantly different throughout the day; whereas, isoprene showed significant differences in concentration between samples collected in light and dark periods. Volatile organic compounds from the atmosphere of wheat (Triticum aestivum cv. Yecora Rojo) were analysed and quantified from planting to maturity. Volatile plant-derived compounds included 1-butanol, 2-ethyl-1-hexanol, nonanal, benzaldehyde, tetramethylurea, tetramethylthiourea, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran. Concentrations of volatiles were determined during seedling establishment, vegetative growth, anthesis, grain fill and senescence and found to vary depending on the developmental stage. Atmospheric concentrations of benzaldehyde and nonanal were highest during anthesis, 2-methylfuran and 3-methylfuran concentrations were greatest during grain fill, and the concentration of the tetramethylurea peaked during senescence.
This paper first gives an overview of the epidemiological data concerning the cancer-preventive effect of brassica vegetables, including cabbages, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. A protective effect of brassicas against cancer may be plausible due to their relatively high content of glucosinolates. Certain hydrolysis products of glucosinolates have shown anticarcinogenic properties. The results of six cohort studies and 74 case-control studies on the association between brassica consumption and cancer risk are summarized. The cohort studies showed inverse associations between the consumption of brassica’s and risk of lung cancer, stomach cancer, all cancers taken together. Of the case-control studies 64% showed an inverse association between consumption of one or more brassica vegetables and risk of cancer at various sites. Although the measured effects might have been distorted by various types of bias, it is concluded that a high consumption of brassica vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of cancer. This association appears to be most consistent for lung, stomach, colon and rectal cancer, and least consistent for prostatic, endometrial and ovarian cancer. It is not yet possible to resolve whether associations are to be attributed to brassica vegetables per se or to vegetables in general. Further epidemiological research should separate the anticarcinogenic effect of brassica vegetables from the effect of vegetables in general.
For the past 9 years, the Breadboard Project at Kennedy Space Center has studied the feasibility of using crop plants in bioregenerative life support systems for long-duration space missions. Nitrogen (N) has been emphasized in nutrient balance studies because it is a major plant nutrient, undergoes biogenic and abiogenic transformations, and is often limiting to plant growth under field conditions. Nitrogen budgets have been calculated from experimental results to quantify utilization and losses associated with specific crop production systems. The Breadboard Project has recently completed a 418-day potato crop study using recycled nutrient solution to evaluate the impact of continuous production on life support functions. A continuous production system is desirable in maintaining N balance within a solution because crop uptake rates vary dramatically depending upon the stage of crop development. Strategies for recycling N using biological techniques (e.g., biomass degradation with microbial bioreactors) have required that the production system be modified to distribute inputs more evenly over time. Recovery of N is dependent on the form of N entering the bioreactor and the desired output. Aerobic and anaerobic bioreactors for the recovery of N from waste streams and its transformation into a form usable by higher plants are being designed and tested.
Atmospheres of enclosed environments in which 20 m2 stands of wheat, potato, and lettuce were grown were characterized and quantified by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. A large number (in excess of 90) of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were identified in the chambers. Twenty eight VOC's were assumed to be of biogenic origin for these were not found in the chamber atmosphere when air samples were analyzed in the absence of plants. Some of the compounds found were unique to a single crop. For example, only 35% of the biogenic compounds detected in the wheat atmosphere were unique to wheat, while 36% were unique to potato and 26% were unique to lettuce. The number of compounds detected in the wheat (20 compounds) atmosphere was greater than that of potato (11) and lettuce (15) and concentration levels of biogenic and non-biogenic VOC's were similar.
Bioregenerative life support systems (BLSS) being considered for long duration space missions will operate with limited resupply and utilize biological systems to revitalize the atmosphere, purify water, and produce food. The presence of man-made materials, plant and microbial communities, and human activities will result in the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A database of VOC production from potential BLSS crops is being developed by the Breadboard Project at Kennedy Space Center. Most research to date has focused on the development of air revitalization systems that minimize the concentration of atmospheric contaminants in a closed environment. Similar approaches are being pursued in the design of atmospheric revitalization systems in bioregenerative life support systems. in a BLSS one must consider the effect of VOC concentration on the performance of plants being used for water and atmospheric purification processes. In addition to phytotoxic responses, the impact of removing biogenic compounds from the atmosphere on BLSS function needs to be assessed. This paper provides a synopsis of criteria for setting exposure limits, gives an overview of existing information, and discusses production of biogenic compounds from plants grown in the Biomass Production Chamber at Kennedy Space Center.