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Broccoli in space – how probiotics in microgravity could help grow vegetables



A new experiment will test whether microbes can help broccoli grow better in difficult space conditions. Credit: Deborah Rigg

International Space Station astronauts spend more time on Earth, but still need vegetables every day. In search of a viable way for the crew to grow their own vegetables during the orbit ̵

1; and possibly one day on the moon or Mars – student researchers send broccoli seeds coated in a healthy dose of probiotics into space.

Six broccoli seeds were aboard the orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, which was launched this week from Wallops Island, Virginia, as part of a space station mission to replenish the space station. Three of the seeds migrate into space, while the other three are coated with two different types of bacteria developed at the University of Washington, which can live in crops and improve their growth. These "beneficial" microbes, also called endophytes, can also help plants grow better in extreme low-gravity environments and lack nutrients or water.

The aim of the experiment, conducted by students at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California, is to learn how to grow vegetables under the challenging conditions of the space station – and finally on the Moon and Mars – while exploring human space can grow. The first soil tests developed by a team of 11 students proved successful as the broccoli grew faster and was significantly larger than the control study.

"It would be ideal if we could grow plants for astronauts on the space station, or are Lunar or Mars-based, without needing to deliver pot mix or fertilizer," said Sharon Doty, a UW professor at the School of Environmental Sciences. and Forest Science and Plant Microbiologist, who isolated and characterized the microbes in this experiment. "We want to be able to grow plants with minimal effort."

Students participate in the Quest for Space program of the Quest Institute for Quality Education and are supervised by NASA's David Bubenheim. Ammes Research Center for Biosphere Sciences and John Freeman of Intrinsyx Technologies. The experiment was prepared in a flight lab at the NASA-Ames Research Center in California.

Students at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California, are preparing their experiment. Credit: Deborah Rigg

Freeman has tested many plants aboard the International Space Station and has also used these microbes to enhance the growth of crops such as tomatoes, lettuce, soybeans, wheat, corn and broccoli. Freeman has found that plants thrive even when they receive less water and essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

His work also confirms a 2016 study in which Doty and co-authors found that plant drought and other environmental stressors can better tolerate the help of natural microbes that provide nutrients to their plant partners.

These specific endophytes and broccoli plants were selected for the spaceflight experiment because they gave good results in greenhouse trials under growth conditions similar to Mars, where nitrogen and phosphorus are limited, said Freeman

while at the International Space Station a number of different vegetable cropping experiments This is the first to study natural microbes to help crops with nutrient restrictions and weightlessness, he said.

"In space, plants are very stressed and do not grow or reproduce well," said Freeman. "We want plants to grow better, we're trying broccoli because it's considered to be an anti-cancer food source, which is a good nutrient for deep-sea researchers."

The microbes are first encapsulated in a coating that covers the broccoli seeds, protecting the seeds from dehydration and allowing safe dry storage before the seeds are hydrated and grown in orbit. When the endophyte-coated broccoli seeds reach the space station, they are hydrated in a small plant growth chamber that provides constant light to promote photosynthesis. The cameras will periodically capture images of the seedlings that will help the researchers and their mentors track the growth of the seedling.

After the plants have returned from outer space, they measure the growth and chlorophyll content and compare the inoculated broccoli to those grown without microbes.

Separately, Doty and her team receive plant samples to study how well the two microbial species colonized broccoli in space and whether they were as effective as they were on Earth.

"We want to know if the microbes find their way into the plant even in weightlessness, and if one of the required plant signals is terrestrial," Doty said. "We need to test if they still work the way we expect them to grow in a different environment like microgravity."

Doty and her UW team isolated the microbes used in this experiment from wild willow plants more than a decade ago on nutrient-poor land between the rocks and sand along the Snoqualmie River. The plants had already selected the best microbes to help them grow in harsh conditions, so researchers resorted to these key microbial strains and used them to grow plants, grasses and trees in challenging environments.

Willow and poplar trees grow along the Snoqualmie River. Credit: Sharon Doty / University of Washington

These microbes can benefit plants of all kinds by helping them convert nitrogen from the air into essential nutrients for the plant and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer in the case of crops such as broccoli.

In Separate Projects Doty and her lab, along with Bubenheim and Freeman, are beginning to test whether plants given natural willow and poplar microbes can grow under conditions that exist on the Moon and on Mars. They use regolith simulant – fissured rock material with no organic matter – that mimics extraterrestrial conditions at both sites to see if microbes can help plants grow under otherwise harsh conditions. The work is also part of the UW Astrobiology Program, which was the first university program of its kind when it was launched 20 years ago.

"This is the first step from which I hope that it will be a truly long-term research program inhabited on Mars and on the Moon in a very efficient manner with natural symbiosis, rather than trying to bring chemical fertilizer into these environments "Doty said.


Further information:
Microgravity plant growth experiments delivered to the space station

Provided by:
University of Washington


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