Seeds in space: plant research on the Artemis I mission


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How will we grow food in space? It’s a question Federica Brandizzi of Michigan State University has been particularly interested in answering.

Brandizzi, an MSU Foundation professor in the College of Natural Sciences and the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, will send seeds on the Artemis I mission to better understand how to grow food during space travel.

“It’s really about understanding how we can establish and sustain life off this planet,” Brandizzi said. “We need plants that can survive long-term space travel for generations.”

But plants grow differently in space than on Earth. Over the past few decades, scientists have worked to compensate for these changes by gaining a better understanding of plant biology and development far from our home planet.

From previous experiments, scientists have learned that spaceflight affects the building blocks of organisms like the amino acids that keep seedlings strong on Earth. The same amino acids would also be nutritious for people who eat the plants.

Brandizzi’s laboratory has therefore selected seeds enriched with these amino acids and sends them into space with regular seeds. This experiment will allow the MSU team to see if fortifying seeds on Earth could create a more sustainable path to growing healthier plants and foods in space.

“In space, there are so many variables, so many things that plants have never experienced before,” Brandizzi said. For example, without the gravitational pull of the Earth, plants are weightless in space. And without Earth’s protective atmosphere, plants encounter higher doses of cosmic rays.

The team’s experiment is one of four selected by NASA’s Space Biology Program to better understand how deep space affects Earth’s biology. After years of preparation, the Artemis I mission slated for launch Aug. 29 is a first step toward the agency’s future goal of establishing a “long-term human presence on the moon.”

MSU seedlings aboard Artemis’ Orion spacecraft will be accompanied by a yeast experiment run by the University of Colorado at Boulder, a fungus experiment run by the Naval Research Laboratory, and a on photosynthetic algae led by the Institute for Medical Research, a nonprofit research corporation.

This will also be the Brandizzi lab’s third experiment aboard a NASA mission.

“I’ve always been fascinated by NASA. It’s just amazing what they’ve been able to do with spaceflight,” Brandizzi said.

His team’s previous work focused on understanding how plants respond to unique space constraints. The projects have been different, but their goals all relate to one day growing plants suitable to thrive on missions to the moon and beyond.

Working with NASA on these experiments was a dream come true and an incredible opportunity to introduce his team to a different way of conducting research, Brandizzi said. Unlike his team’s other projects, the team can’t adapt on the fly or make changes to the experience after launch, in this case literally.

“You only get one hit, so everything has to be perfect,” she said. “I’ve been through this twice already, so I know it’s going to be a mix of emotions. The preparation is intense, it’s tiring, but it’s so rewarding.”

Working in tandem: NASA networks empower Artemis I

Provided by Michigan State University

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