Space gardener

Meet the scientist who wants to use GoPro cameras to grow food on Mars

Whether it was Rubik's Cubes, Sudoku or riddles, Nicole Beisel loved puzzles as a kid. Not much has changed. But these days the University of Florida doctoral student works with a lot more pieces and the stakes are higher. Much higher. Think Mars.

Beisel's research involves making sense of immense, complex sets of genetics data for the UF's Space Plants Lab, a team focused on, as you may have guessed, growing plants in zero gravity. (Learn how the lab sends plants to space.) But it's Beisel's side project that she calls "simply cool" and will one day help the first greenhouses thrive on Mars.

By thinking outside of the box, Beisel is developing imaging procedures for a GoPro modified by the Space Plants team that uses near-infrared light to detect when a plant is in destress before it's possible with the naked eye. 

The camera known for its ability to capture extreme images could one day give astronauts an advantage on a hostile foreign planet, allowing them to monitor greenhouses remotely and correct a would-be catastrophic decline of plant health before it happens.

With NASA's goal to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s and Elon Musk's talk of a Mars colony, early detection of plant destress could one day mean the difference between life and death for the first people on Mars.

"If it were a situation where you're depending on crops to provide food, oxygen or recycle water, you have to be very careful about preserving the system because it's pivotal to your survival," said Anna-Lisa Paul, co-principal investigator in the Space Plants Lab.

The imaging processes could serve the same use in greenhouses on Earth, which could prove especially important for improving urban crops.

Not many plant biologists can say their research has the potential to help gardeners on Earth as well as on Mars, and that's why Beisel chose UF. Her work could prove equally as important for the first Mars colonists as warehouse gardeners in places like New York City.

"We modified a GoPro with parts you can get online, and then figured out how to deploy it in a way that makes sense for spaceflight," Beisel said.

Hostile environments are an average day at the office for the Space Plants team. The lab has completed experiments from the International Space Station to the Canadian Arctic — locations that allow the scientists to simulate a Mars-bound expedition and the types of conditions astronauts would face on the red planet.

Antarctica was the site of the lab's most recent field experiment, where lead researchers Paul and Robert Ferl successfully deployed the modified GoPros, or imagers, in Mars-like greenhouse conditions for the first time.

The GoPros were modified to allow scientists to compare near-infrared and visible light reflected by the plant. Healthy vegetation absorbs most of the visible light that hits it, and reflects a lot of near-infrared light, while unhealthy vegetation reflects more visible light and less near-infrared. Beisel uses the same calculations NASA has been using for years to identify vegetation on Earth via satellites, called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index.

She is working to develop a system that will trigger an alert when the imager has detected a plant health emergency.

But her work doesn't stop when the experiment is over. After the space plants leave the ISS and splash down in the Pacific, they’re brought back to UF and their RNA (a molecule within DNA that's essential in various biological roles and expression of genes) is extracted — and that’s when Beisel’s puzzle-solving skills really come into play.

With bioinformatics, or the use of software and coding to do science, Beisel analyses the various ways the space plants' RNA changed, or stayed the same, while in spaceflight to allow the plant to adapt. While housed on the ISS, plants develop what Beisel calls "space sweaters." These "sweaters" are actually thousands of different adaptations that allowed the plants to survive in space.

"You can think about it like this: I'm taking an inventory of every single sweater, or adaptation, that the plant knitted while in space," 
Beisel said. 

 "And their closets are huge."

Sometimes, Beisel finds a special "sweater," one slightly different from anything the plant knits on Earth. It's these unique adaptations, as well as the adaptations plants use on Earth that are absent in space, which may be the key to understanding how plants adapt to spaceflight. (Learn more about the method Beisel uses called alternative splicing.)

By piecing together these clues deep inside plant DNA, her work will lead to a greater understanding of ways scientists can tweak plant genetics to help them flourish in space.

Between this deep dive into plant DNA and her modified imaging project, Beisel's research is rounding the bases of space gardening. She'll be around 40 years old when NASA sends the first voyage to Mars. Will she be among the first Martian gardeners?

“I haven't thought too much into it. But, if the opportunity came my way, I’d definitely consider it. How could you not?” she said.

In the meantime, Beisel says the possibility of putting people on Mars is motivation enough to keep solving the problems that will get us there.

Words by Stephenie Livingston and images by Brianne Lehan