Like farmers across the nation bringing in their crops this season, researchers in Wisconsin are carefully taking stock of a very special harvest – one grown aboard the International Space Station.
They’ve measured and weighed plants, counted seeds, and collected additional physical information from the first-ever soybean crop grown aboard the orbiting research laboratory.
Now, the research team will begin several months of chemical and biological tests on the plants that will reveal whether microgravity — the low-gravity environment inside the Space Station — has changed the chemical make-up of the seeds.
Soybeans — a leading source of protein in the human diet — are used in a variety of products, from oil to crayons. Finding improved varieties could have a significant economic impact on a soybean business worth billions of dollars each year.
“We want to examine the seeds produced by plants grown on the Station to see if they have any unique, desirable traits,” said Dr. Tom Corbin, a research scientist for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a DuPont subsidiary with headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, and the industrial sponsor for the experiment.
“If we find changes, then we want to know if the positive traits can be inherited genetically by future generations of plants for the benefit of farmers and consumers,” Corbin explained.
Space Shuttle Atlantis visited the orbiting laboratory this month during the STS-112 mission to deliver new experiment equipment and other supplies and return with the soybean plants and other completed experiments.
“This experiment and others are paving the way for improving crops grown on Earth, as well as potentially feeding people living in space,” said Mark Nall, director of NASA’s Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The program has helped companies fly several experiments on the Station by working with one of NASA’s 15 Commercial Space Centers located across America.
“The Space Station is giving companies a chance to grow plants that require several months to mature,” said Nall.
NASA International Space Station Science Officer Peggy Whitson took care of the soybeans on the Station since the experiment began in June. In one of her e-mail letters to family and friends this summer, she reported, “The beans looked mature and the leaves are turning brown.”
The plants and seed pods were turning brown because scientists wanted them to dry out and be preserved for tests on Earth.
It turned out to be a very good crop.
“The first soybean crop grown in space returned in excellent condition, and a total of 83 seeds were harvested from 42 seed pods,” said Dr. Weijia Zhou, director of the Wisconsin Space Center for Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Since a plant’s habitat plays a key role in determining the physiological and biological characteristics of the plant, we believe that reduced gravity may affect plant chemistry.”
The Wisconsin center is a NASA Commercial Space Center, and was responsible for building the Advanced Astroculture™ plant growth chamber where the soybeans germinated and grew for 97 days.
“We will analyze the oil, proteins, carbohydrates and secondary metabolites in the seeds produced in space,” noted Corbin, whose company is the largest seed company in the world. “We will continue analysis of the soybeans at Pioneer’s laboratory in Johnston, Iowa, and we anticipate having results in two to three months.”
NASA is interested in the technologies that enable production of commercially important crops like soybeans in space because these technologies will be needed to produce vegetable crops that support a long-term human presence in space.
Can new varieties of crops be produced using seeds produced by space-grown plants? Do these space plants produce seeds with higher oil content or improved nutritional value? Can elite seeds be produced that will improve farmers’ crop yields and the quality of plants products used in consumer products?
Zhou and Corbin hope to begin answering these questions by analyzing the space-grown plants and seeds. On Earth, the development of naturally bred crop seeds is time consuming, usually taking several years. If this process can be accelerated with space-grown, plants, it would make the Station an attractive research laboratory for industry to use in crop development.
“As a science company, DuPont knows that future research opportunities may come from totally different venues and needs as we look ahead,” said Dr. Thomas M. Connelly, DuPont’s chief science and technology officer. “The discovery process often requires exploring in unprecedented avenues to unleash the next wave of innovation, and we are committed to discovering new and meaningful innovation wherever it is.”
Growing plants in space could provide salads for future space crews, but they also may bring other psychological and biological benefits.
When she first saw the growing soybeans, Whitson, an Iowa native, reported in an e-mail letter home to family and friends, “It was surprising to me how great soybean plants looked. I guess seeing something green for the first time in a month and a half had a real effect. I think it’s interesting that the reaction was as dramatic as it was…guess if we go to Mars, we need a garden!”
Over the next few months, Whitson will continue her gardening duties, tending a crop of mustard plants that will soon be growing inside the Plant Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus — designed and built by BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, Wis., and the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., which also has grown plants on the Station, and a consortium of industries, are partners on the experiment.
“This is the first in a series of Space Station plant experiments that will study the role of gravity in producing lignin, a substance that affects the strength of plant stalks and stems,” said Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe Space Technologies. “Identifying the genes that control lignin production in plants has broad applications in the timber and pharmaceutical industries.”
Plants need lignin for strength to stand upright under the force of Earth’s gravity. But this chemical must be removed to produce paper — a costly process that results in pollution. Reducing the lignin content of plants could make it less expensive to produce paper and reduce pollution.
Another significant benefit of growing plants in space is the educational benefit. Space Explorers, Inc., a commercial firm in Green Bay, Wis., produces Internet-based, space education programs. The company used data from the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiments to create the "Orbital Laboratory" educational software program. It allows students to design, conduct and analyze plant experiments on the Space Station.
Then they can compare data through an online student experiment database. After the experiment is finished on the Space Station, students can use actual data from the experiment to recreate the experiment in a virtual environment.
During Expedition Five, students from California to New York grew soybeans and dwarf wheat plants, similar to those already grown on the Station, under nine different growing conditions. Via the Internet, they shared their results and how those results might affect plants grown on long-term space missions.
This and other Space Product Development experiments are sponsored by the Office of Biological and Physical Research at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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