Space Biology research helps us understand the fundamentals of plant growth by examining the very building blocks of plant life down to the molecular level: transcriptomics, genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. To compare the effects of microgravity conditions on plants, we also conduct experiments on Earth using gravity or simulated microgravity ground controls at the Kennedy Space Center. We conduct our research on the ISS in conditions of microgravity to help us understand how to support astronauts aboard the ISS and on their long journey to Mars.
One of Space Biology’s major objectives is to understand how the spaceflight environment affects how plants grow and thrive. The basic research has allowed NASA scientists to grow edible plants in space that could be used as a source of fresh food by the crew on the ISS. Considering that every single thing that astronauts eat is freeze-dried and comes out of a shrink-wrapped package, being able to enjoy a fresh vegetable provides a healthy and much welcomed break from this routine. Already, edible romaine lettuce and cabbage has successfully been grown on the ISS. Soon, Mizuna and tomatoes will join the list of edible plants gown in pace.
In the next year Space Biology will fly experiments to the ISS designed to test the growth of a variety of new plants its crew can eventually eat as they fly to the moon and Mars. To ensure the health of our astronauts, we’ll be examining the nutritional composition of plants grown in space, and looking at the microbiome of plants in orbit. This work may eventually lead to the production of a sustainable source of healthy food on long-duration space flights, which will help astronauts get the nutrition they need.
As we examine the impacts of spaceflight on plant biology, we ask the following:
- How does gravity affect plant growth, development & metabolism (e.g. photosynthesis, re- production, lignin formation, plant defense mechanisms)?
- Does the spaceflight environment cause alterations in plant/microbe interactions?
- How can horticultural approaches for sustained production of edible crops in space be both improved and implemented (especially as related to water and nutrient provision in the root zone)?
- What are the effects of chronic exposure to cosmic radiation on plants?
- How do plants sense and react to gravity and what are the molecular mechanisms involved?