Seeds to be grown in space could provide insight into lignin

July 4, 2018 |

In Virginia, last month a rocket thundered off a NASA launch pad, destined for the International Space Station. Nestled among the 7,400 lbs. of supplies was a handful of seeds designed to open new windows into our knowledge of how plants grow in space – information that could lead to growing fresh food in space for people aboard the space station or producing biofuel on our own planet.

It’s the very first experiment to be conducted in NASA’s advanced plant habitat – the most advanced environmental growth chamber ever in space – on the International Space Station.

The seeds will grow into the plant Arabidopsis, more commonly known as thale cress. The experiment puts the common weed, found often along the roadside or in cracks in the sidewalk, squarely at the forefront of space colonization. For if people are to embark on a years-long mission to Mars, they will need to grow fresh food along the way. To do that, we need to understand how plants grow in space.

The project has more than 180 sensors trained on the plants, taking detailed measurements of temperature, lighting, oxygen, carbon dioxide, moisture and other variables as the space station hurtles more than 17,000 miles per hour around Earth, 254 miles above our heads.

Earth’s gravity is still formidable at that altitude so it’s not quite right to call the environment “zero gravity.” The plants will be in a continuous state of freefall, an environment that scientists call “microgravity.”

It’s the first time plants will be grown in space under precisely controlled conditions, and compared to identical counterparts grown under similarly precise conditions. On the space station, a round of data will be collected every five seconds, and three cameras will take two photos every day to monitor growth.

At the core of the experiment are six types of Arabidopsis: a wild type, one with an enhanced carbon capture mechanism and four with compromised lignin synthesis.

Lignin, a literal wall within a plant, is also a barrier to researchers at EMSL and elsewhere trying to create new plant-based biofuels. Lignin makes plants resistant to chemical manipulation, to transformation into plant-based biofuels. Thus the interest in exploring the behavior of plants deficient in lignin for Earth-based, everyday living.

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Category: Research

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