Harvesting plants in space

For humans to travel to the moon and Mars, they’ll need to bring a lowly weed. Just as actor Matt Damon attempts to survive on Mars in the movie The Martian by cultivating plants in unfavorable conditions, real life astronauts interested in colonizing Mars may also need to understand how to grow plants in extreme climates. Now researchers at the University of Florida are studying weeds in unique situations, like on the International Space Station.

TRANSCRIPT

FOR HUMANS TO TRAVEL TO THE MOON AND TO MARS, THEY'LL NEED TO BRING, AMONG OTHER THINGS, A LOWLY WEED.

JUST AS ACTOR MATT DAMON ATTEMPTS TO SURVIVE ON MARS IN THE MOVIE 'MARTIAN' BY CULTIVATING PLANTS IN HOSTILE CONDITIONS, REAL-LIFE ASTRONAUTS INTERESTED IN COLONIZING MARS MAY ALSO NEED TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO GROW PLANTS IN EXTREME CLIMATES.

NOW RESEARCHERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA ARE STUDYING WEEDS IN UNIQUE SITUATIONS, LIKE ON THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

FILMMAKER AND 'SCIENCE FRIDAY' PRODUCER EMILY DRISCOLL BRINGS US THE STORY.

IF WE'RE EVER GONNA COLONIZE THIS PLACE OR SPEND AN EXTENDED AMOUNT OF TIME HERE OR EVEN TRY TO SURVIVE IN CHANGING CLIMATES ON OUR OWN PLANET, WE'RE GONNA NEED...CRACKWORTS?

AND PEOPLE CALLED IT 'CRACKWORT.'

THERE'S LOTS OF DIFFERENT COMMON NAMES FOR ARABIDOPSIS.

ESSENTIALLY, IT'S A WEED.

PLANT BIOLOGISTS ANNA-LISA PAUL AND ROBERT FERL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA GAINESVILLE SPACE PLANTS LAB GROW THE HUMBLE WEED ARABIDOPSIS ON PURPOSE -- TO FIND CLUES ABOUT HOW PLANTS BEHAVE IN EXTREME CONDITIONS, SUCH AS...

HOW DO PLANTS GROW DIFFERENTLY IN ORBIT OR ON THE MOON OR ON MARS?

SPACE FLIGHT IN PARTICULAR -- IT'S SOMETHING THAT NO ORGANISM ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH HAS EXPERIENCED EVER IN ITS EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY.

SO, HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT?

WE'RE REALLY INTRIGUED BY WHAT METABOLIC TOOLS A PLANT WILL DIP IN TO TO DEAL WITH SOMETHING THAT IT HAS NO EXPERIENCE WITH.

DR. PAUL AND DR. FERL USE GLOW-IN-THE-DARK MARKERS THAT SHOW WHICH GENES ARE TURNED ON WHEN THE PLANTS ARE STRESSED.

THEN THEY STRAP ARABIDOPSIS IN FOR SOME UNIQUE SITUATIONS, LIKE PARABOLIC FLIGHT, WHICH MIMICS THE WEIGHTLESSNESS OF SPACE.

PARABOLIC FLIGHT IS A VERY INTERESTING AND EXCITING THING FOR PLANTS AND PLANT BIOLOGISTS.

PLANTS KNOW WHEN THEY'RE IN A JET AIRPLANE.

NOW, THEY DON'T KNOW THAT IN THEIR BRAINS BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE THEM, BUT IT'S RECORDED IN THEIR METABOLISM.

PLANTS ARE JUST EXQUISITELY SENSITIVE TO CHANGES IN THEIR ENVIRONMENTS.

THEY CAN'T GO ANYWHERE, AND SO THEY BECOME THE MASTERS OF THEIR METABOLIC UNIVERSE.

THEY CAN RESPOND EVEN IN THE FIRST 30 SECONDS OF A PARABOLIC SET.

THE PARABOLIC FLIGHTS ALSO HELP THE RESEARCHERS FIGURE OUT WHICH EXPERIMENTS WOULD WORK -- OR NOT -- FOR ASTRONAUTS IN ZERO 'G.'

THEN IT'S BLAST-OFF TIME.

ARABIDOPSIS SEEDS WERE PLACED IN CASSETTES WITH NUTRIENT GEL AND LAUNCHED TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

ONCE ON BOARD, THEY'RE PLACED IN A GROWTH CHAMBER, WITH SOME CASSETTES RECEIVING MORE LIGHT THAN OTHERS.

ASTRONAUTS MONITOR THE 12-DAY EXPERIMENTS BEFORE RETURNING THE AGED ARABIDOPSIS BACK TO EARTH, WHERE DR. PAUL AND DR. FERL WERE WAITING TO ANALYZE THEIR GROWTH.

ON EARTH, WE USUALLY GROW THEM VERTICALLY, AND SO WE GROW THEM ON A VERTICAL SURFACE, AND THEN THE ROOTS WILL GROW PRETTY MUCH STRAIGHT DOWN THE SURFACE OF THE PLATES.

WHEN YOU GROW THEM IN SPACE, IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, THERE'S NO GRAVITY TO TELL THE ROOTS WHICH WAY TO GROW.

ONE IDEA WOULD BE THAT, IN THE ABSENCE OF GRAVITY, PLANT ROOTS WOULD SIMPLY WANDER AROUND AIMLESSLY.

ANOTHER EXPECTATION MIGHT BE THAT IF LIGHT WAS A STRONG ENOUGH CUE, THEY WOULD SIMPLY GROW IN A SINGLE DIRECTION AWAY FROM THE LIGHT.

AT FIRST, THE SPACE PLANTS GREW DOWN THE PLATE, LIKE THEY WOULD ON EARTH, BUT THEN THE ARABIDOPSIS THAT WERE GROWN FURTHER FROM THE LIGHT DID SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

RIGHT ABOUT THE 5-DAY MARK, THEY STARTED TO DO THIS CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WE CALL, 'SKEWING,' THIS KIND OF JOG TO THE LEFT.

SINCE THE TIMES OF DARWIN IN THE 1800s, IT'S BEEN UNDERSTOOD THAT THIS ANGLED GROWTH OF ROOTS, THIS SKEWING, WAS DUE TO GRAVITY.

INSTEAD OF GRAVITY GUIDING ITS GROWTH, ARABIDOPSIS USED LIGHT.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE PROTEINS INVOLVED IN PLANT BEHAVIOR REVEALED THAT 480 GENES UNDERWENT SIGNIFICANT CHANGES DURING SPACE FLIGHT.

NEXT, DR. PAUL AND DR. FERL WILL DELVE DEEPER INTO THESE CHANGES, EVEN GROWING PLANTS IN THE DARK.

THEIR TESTING COULD HELP US BECOME BETTER FARMERS IN EXTREME CONDITIONS ON EARTH AND IN SUBORBITAL VEHICLES, PAVING THE WAY FOR TAKING PLANTS TO THE MOON AND MARS.

PLANTS HAVE A VERY KEY ROLE IN KEEPING HUMANS ALIVE IN LONG-TERM SPACE FLIGHT.

IT'S SIMPLY IMPRACTICAL, IT'S VERY DIFFICULT, AND IT COSTS TOO MUCH JET FUEL, TOO MUCH ROCKET FUEL, TOO MUCH NUCLEAR FUEL TO BOOST ALL OF OUR FOOD TO THE SURFACE OF MARS AND HAVE IT BE THERE FOR ENOUGH YEARS TO KEEP A HUMAN COLONY ALIVE.

WHO KNOWS?

THIS LOWLY PIONEERING PLANT COULD ONE DAY BECOME AN INTREPID MARS EXPLORER.

JOINING ME NOW IS SCIENCE FILMMAKER EMILY DRISCOLL.

PEOPLE GOT MORE EXCITED ABOUT BOTANY IN THE LAST TWO MONTHS BECAUSE OF ALL THOSE TRAILERS FOR THE MATT DAMON MOVIE THAN I'VE SEEN IN YEARS, BUT THE FACT THAT PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET SOMETHING TO GROW IN THESE BIZARRE CONDITIONS IN SPACE -- THAT'S PRETTY INTERESTING.

YEAH.

IT WAS REALLY EXCITING, VISITING THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA SPACE PLANTS LAB, WHERE DR. PAUL AND DR. FERL ARE GROWING THESE WEEDS AND PUTTING THEM UNDER ALL THESE EXTREME CONDITIONS.

THEY ALSO TAKE THEM ON JET PLANES AND THESE PARABOLIC FLIGHTS AND SIMULATE WEIGHTLESSNESS FOR THE PLANTS, AND JUST IN 20 OR 30 SECONDS, THE PLANTS -- WHAT'S HAPPENING INSIDE THE PLANTS IS ACTUALLY CHANGING, EVEN IN THAT SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME.

SO, PLANTS KNOW WHEN THEY'RE IN ZERO 'G' OR EVEN 30,000 FEET.

LIKE, THE PROTEINS INSIDE THE PLANTS ARE CHANGING AND TRYING TO, YOU KNOW, KEEP THEIR STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY INTACT.

AND THAT'S INTERESTING.

WHEN THEY SAW WHAT HAPPENED TO THOSE PLANTS THAT WERE EXPOSED TO DIFFERENT TYPES OF LIGHT IN SPACE AND THEY SAW THE ROOTS KIND OF HEADING TOWARD ONE DIRECTION, THAT DOES THAT TEACH THEM?

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

YEAH. SO, THERE'S SOMETHING CALLED 'SKEWING,' WHICH IS HAVING THE ROOT SLANT TO THE LEFT, AND THAT WAS THOUGHT FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS THAT THAT A THE RESULT OF GRAVITY, SO THEY FOUND THAT THE PLANTS WERE DOING THIS IN SPACE.

NOT ALL OF THEM -- ONES THAT WERE FARTHER AWAY FROM THE LIGHT.

SO, THIS SHOWED THEM THAT SOMETHING ELSE IS CAUSING SKEWING, WHETHER IT'S LIGHT OR WHETHER IT'S MOISTURE.

YOU KNOW, THEY STILL DON'T KNOW, BUT THAT REVEALED SOMETHING, YOU KNOW, REALLY DIFFERENT FOR THEM.

REALLY, IT TOOK A SPACE FLIGHT TO CHALLENGE WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT SOMETHING AS BASIC AS, 'OH, YOU KNOW WHAT?

WE'VE KNOWN THIS FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS.

SKEWING MUST HAPPEN BECAUSE OF 'X.'' AND NOW, WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE 'X' IN THAT ENVIRONMENT, MAYBE THERE'S ANOTHER REASON.

EXACTLY, AND UNDERSTANDING PLANT BIOLOGY IS JUST REALLY IMPORTANT FOR SO MANY REASONS, BUT WE, FIRST OF ALL, NEED TO KNOW HOW TO GROW PLANTS IN EXTREME CONDITIONS ON EARTH, WITH CLIMATE CHANGE AND OUR EXPANDING POPULATION, BUT ALSO IN SUBORBITAL VEHICLES, IF WE DO LONG-TERM SPACE TRAVEL, AND, ULTIMATELY, ON THE MOON OR MARS.

AND, PLUS, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT THE SCIENTISTS SAID IS THAT WE REALLY COULDN'T POSSIBLY CARRY ALL THE FOOD THAT WE NEED.

WE HAVE TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO GROW THINGS.

OTHERWISE, WE COULDN'T FEED OURSELVES.

EXACTLY, AND THEY'RE ALSO LOOKING TO -- THEY HAVE IN THE CANADIAN HIGH ARCTIC, THEY ARE WORKING ON THESE ANALOG GREENHOUSES, SO YOU CAN PROGRAM THEM.

SO, FOR EXAMPLE, LIKE, IF WE SEND THE GREENHOUSES TO MARS AHEAD OF TIME, BY THE TIME THE ASTRONAUTS GET THERE, YOU KNOW, WE COULD PROGRAM THEM SO THEY'LL ACTUALLY START GROWING, SO THEY'LL BE GROWN BY THE TIME THE ASTRONAUTS GET THERE.

ALL RIGHT, EMILY DRISCOLL.

THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EMILY DRISCOLL'S SCIENCE FILMS, CHECK OUT THE LINK ON OUR WEBSITE.

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