Skip to main content

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA and SpaceX target new Crew-6 launch date after scrubbed effort
Crew-6 astronauts aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

After NASA and SpaceX scrubbed the launch of Crew-6 just a couple of minutes before lift-off early on Monday morning, officials have announced they're now targeting Thursday for the next launch effort.

The team called off Monday’s launch attempt at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when it suddenly encountered an issue in the ground systems affecting the loading of the ignition fluids for the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry the astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) inside the Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule.

Read more
NASA, SpaceX delay Crew-6 launch to space station
SpaceX's Crew-6 astronauts.

Following a flight readiness review on Tuesday, NASA and SpaceX have decided to delay the Crew-6 launch to the International Space Station by about 24 hours.

The additional time will enable launch personnel to sort out some relatively minor issues with the launch vehicle, officials said.

Read more
SpaceX offers ride to Soyuz astronaut in case of ISS emergency
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the ISS.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft suffered damage at the International Space Station (ISS) in December when a leak caused it to lose a large amount of coolant.

Following an investigation, NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, decided to send a replacement Soyuz spacecraft on February 20.

Read more