Research into how plants respond to microgravity could help grow food in space

In order to make long-distance space travel viable, one challenge to be solved is how to feed astronauts over the months or years that they are in space. Currently, astronauts eat mostly processed and pre-packaged meals, and those who stay near to Earth such as in the International Space Station can have treats like ice cream sent to them on resupply missions. But having to send all of the food required for a mission into space at launch is costly and heavy, and it is hard to ensure that the astronauts get sufficient nutrients — not to mention the psychological toll of eating the same foods every day.

One unappetizing but potentially useful idea is to process the astronauts’ solid waste into protein paste, which would enable much more efficient use of food nutrients. But this doesn’t solve the issue of unappealing food, especially when treats like pizza are a big highlight on space missions. So scientists have been working for many years on a way to grow plants in space, which could potentially provide a source of fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. Freshly grown plants are rich in nutrients and are more appealing in terms of visual appearance and texture than other food sources, meaning they could make a great improvement to astronaut living conditions.

A difficulty with growing plants during spaceflight is that plants behave strangely in space, and we are not quite sure why. Now researchers at the University of Florida Space Plants Lab have made a breakthrough in understanding this process. In a paper in the journal Applications of Plant Sciences they looked at a sample of the rockcress plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) to study how the tips of the roots process information about the environment. This study investigated why plants find space environments stressful and how they detect changes in gravity, such as the microgravity found in orbiting spacecraft.

“The very root tip acts a bit like a ‘brain’ to help sense changes in the environment, and then send the signaling molecules to the right places to initiate changes that help get root growth back on track,” principal investigator Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul explained to Discover Magazine. “So, what if you have no gravity to help with that signal transduction? The root tip still acts as the central processing node in the root, and we can get insight into how the plant navigates in an environment without gravity to guide it by looking at the root tip transcriptome.”

This is the first step to understanding the challenges that plants face in low gravity or zero gravity environments, which could eventually lead to the development of plants that are robust enough to thrive in spaceflight conditions.

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