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Growing a garden in space

The public buzz is building as technological advances get us closer to sending man to Mars – and sometime in the future, to colonizing it. But how do we survive, once we get there?

To answer that, scientists are working through a laundry list of problems, not least of which: how to grow fresh produce on Mars, or anywhere else in that Great Beyond.

It’s already hard enough to grow crops on Earth. And in space, plants face zero gravity, radiation, super cold temperatures, and unusual light intensities.

One way to figure this out is to grow plants on a space station and see how they manage. That is exactly what the Brandizzi lab, alongside NASA, are doing. The lab recently sent seeds from different genetic backgrounds to space, grew them in microgravity for two weeks, and just got them back for testing.

Testing plants for gravity stress

Evan Angelos, a grad student in the Brandizzi lab, says “Our lab studies a plant response to environmental stresses called the unfolded protein response – UPR for short.”

Here’s the UPR in a nutshell: On Earth, when surroundings are hostile to plants – say too much heat – they produce defective bookmark iconproteins, which causes those plants to become sick, and in some extreme cases, to die. The UPR kicks in as an emergency stopgap telling the plant to stop making bad proteins and to resume making good ones.

In space, it seems the UPR has a role to play.

“We previously found evidence which indicates that under altered gravity conditions, the UPR is activated, meaning there might be some stress response involved in adaptation to different types of gravity situations,” Evan says.

This past August, Evan flew to the Kennedy Space Center to prepare the plants for launch on a Dragon Capsule (see launch video). In space, resident astronauts moved the plants to the International Space Station and grew them for 14 days.

Then they froze and stored the plants on a capsule which was sent back to Earth, crashing into the Pacific Ocean. After being picked up by boat and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center, the plants have made their way back to Evan’s lab.

Evan Angelos working in the lab
Evan Angelos on the lab bench.
By Brandizzi lab

“They have been perfectly preserved. Now, we’re going to compare the space plants with other plants, from the same backgrounds, which have grown in the same hardware down on Earth at the Kennedy Space Center.”

Specifically, Evan and the team will examine how the plants’ genetic responses are impacted by the stresses of space life.

Even to the naked eye, it is clear which plants are from space and which from Earth. “The space plants are snaking through the growth media because they obviously had no clear direction on where to grow in that environment, while the Earth plants were perfectly upright, as expected.”

He adds, “After growing and researching thousands of plants, it’s very exciting to experience something which is clearly out of this world.” And out of this world plants will accompany us, if we are to make that trip to Mars.

First, let’s make sure they won’t mind the ride.


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