Space Plants

Scientists on a mission to feed Mars

University of Florida News followed the UF Space Plants Lab team during their most recent mission to test plants' ability to grow in a spaceflight environment. 
SpaceX launched the UF experiment on Feb. 19, along with other supplies, to the International Space Station on Cargo Resupply mission 10.

Space Plants Lab at UF | Three days before launch

Anna-Lisa Paul's hands are steady. 

The pressure to plant 20 to 30 seeds in a tiny petri dish using a water dropper in under 10 minutes doesn’t faze her. Granted, the University of Florida plant molecular biologist has been doing this for "20 odd years."

If the seeds are not placed onto the dish, then sealed, labeled and put back into cold storage before the timer goes off, they may be useless to the experiment. Low temperatures and the dark keep the seeds dormant.

They have to wait to live their first life in space.

The seeds she's planting are part of a long-term collaborative experiment by UF’s Space Plants Lab and NASA to test how organisms respond to zero gravity and a spaceflight environment. In this experiment, the team is looking deep into the ways plants respond to life in space by observing how plants' genetic materials help them adapt to space — an environment completely outside of their evolutionary experience. 

Although people can go and grab a sweater when they're cold, plants cannot move, so they need to knit one on the spot when faced with unexpected temperatures. They "knit" with their genes. The Space Plants team wants to know more about how gene expression helps plants adapt to new environments and, in particular, outer space.

To knit their novel space sweaters, plants will need to find new patterns for an environment which they have never been exposed to by turning off certain genes and utilizing others in ways plants never have before. 

"Our research allows NASA to understand how plants will enable deep space exploration," Paul says. "To live or travel in space for long spans of time, we’ll need to understand how plants live and adapt to being in space, but we also have to understand how to enable plants to grow in these very strange environments." 

The first space plants experiment conducted by Paul and co-team leader Robert Ferl, also a plant molecular biologist with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, was a five-day flight on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999. This time, as part of a Space Station cargo delivery mission, the plants will soar into space on SpaceX’s Falcon aircraft from Kennedy Space Center.

But for now, the team needs to ensure that no major stress is inflicted upon the plants until they reach orbit. To understand how plants adapt to space life, any stress that induces change within the plants must happen in space, with no interference from earthly stresses.

It’s a lot of work that could potentially be scrubbed, along with the launch. If it's delayed more than a day, the team will rush back to UF and prepare more seeds.

But if Paul is stressed, she doesn’t show it. She’s focused. 

In fact, when her mind does wander, it doesn’t wander far. There are doodles in the margins of a notebook that sits next to her. Various types of leaves decorate the pages: serrate, sinuate, scalloped. "The more doodles, the longer the conference call," she says.

There’s a couple of penciled flowers, too. The space-bound seeds are Arabidopsis Thaliana — flowering weeds.

But, first, they have to get the dormant and undisturbed seeds to KSC and then to space, which is no simple task. 

Kennedy Space Center | 48 hours before launch

Ferl pulls into the parking lot of the badging station at KSC, lowers his aviator sunglasses and says, "We have about a half hour. Follow us."

Paul is in the passenger seat. They take us to KSC's Vehicle Assembly Building where the Apollo shuttles were born. Ferl chats about the history of the place, but his sights aren’t on the moon. He’s reaching further than that — all the way to the Red Planet.

"It's simple. We’re going to feed Mars," he says.

When humans go to Mars, we’ll need plants to take care of us the way they do here. They will produce our food, our oxygen and purify our water, says Ferl.

Sounds practical, but Ferl is also driven by scientific curiosity. He wants to know the limits of Earth’s organisms and if those limits inform the answer to the question: Can we only live on Earth?

"What happens when we take an organism whose entire evolutionary background is here and put it some place totally strange?" he says. "We were born, raised and evolved here on Earth. So what are things we'd have to change in order to live on Mars?"

Plants are great test cases for tackling these questions, he says. Then, his phone rings. It’s time for "turnover," which happens when the Space Plants team hands over the 30 petri dishes to KSC personnel in a 40-degree cold room to be placed in the Dragon cargo capsule that the Falcon will take to ISS.

Turnover happens in a room that's not much bigger than a closet and feels more like a large refrigerator than a laboratory. Space is tight inside, to say least. Ferl and Paul unpack the seed dishes, while Susan Manning-Roach, who keeps warm in a white lab coat and scarf, checks to make sure the researchers brought the correct materials. 

When all of the materials have been checked off, they turn them over to KSC personnel on the other side of the cramped space. The seeds are weighed and placed into a special cooler that will keep the seeds cold and dormant until they reach ISS.

Launch Day

The Space Plants team looks on as time counts down.

Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen.

"Hold, hold, hold, hold," sounds mission control.

Last minute rocket trouble forces SpaceX to delay its launch from the same pad where astronauts flew to the moon almost a half-century ago. 

The next launch attempt will be Sunday morning. But the Space Plants team will not see it. They scramble back to UF and begin preparing more dishes in case the launch is scrubbed again.

Will they need them? Better to miss the potential launch, the culmination of their efforts, than miss the rare opportunity to send their research into space at a later time.

Early Sunday morning, eagles fly near the Falcon as it awaits its foray into space.

Hundreds gather to watch the first launch from KSC's historic moon pad since 2011. This time, SpaceX doesn't disappoint. 

Rocket photos courtesy of Kennedy Space Center

The Falcon launches seamlessly into space, with eagles dancing in the billows of smoke left behind. Four days later, the Dragon capsule docks with ISS, and along with the rest of the cargo, arrive the space plants.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson puts the plants into a growth stimulator called "Veggie" aboard the International Space Station. Video courtesy of the Space Plants Lab

The International Space Station | 34 days in orbit

For 11 days the plants grow at ISS while the Space Plants team watches their progress from Earth via a live feed. They communicate with the astronauts, instructing them how to care for the plants as they grow in nutrients and document their progress, through a person at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama who passes their messages to the Space Station.

"It's sort of like Skype, but it's more like the game Telephone," Paul says. 

"Basically, astronauts become our collaborators — they do a lot of the things our graduate students do at UF."

The astronauts place the seeds under the light of a planter called "Veggie" to stimulate growth. Each day astronaut Shane Kimbrough or Peggy Whitson photographs the first row of plants on each dish, which Paul calls "the poster child" for each variety, to document their growth patterns. 

After 11 days, the plants are harvested and placed into tubes filled with preservatives where they’ll stay until the Dragon is returned to Earth, dropping in the Pacific ocean after about 34 days in space.

Back on Earth, the preserved plants live their second life. The team sequences the plants' genomes to find out how they responded to growing in space, specifically looking at changes in DNA methylation.

"The ability to take our biology to strange and interesting places to examine the limits of where we can go is both fundamentally interesting and it’s really a blast," Ferl says.

While the team hasn't been to space yet, they came as close as the average person can get when they took their plants on a parabolic flight, where they were weightless for about 30 seconds at a time.

The team has spent several summers in Canada's High Arctic. Later this year they’ll take their experiments to Antarctica. "We do a lot of non-traditional laboratory stuff," Ferl says.

"But we’re lab nerds just like everybody else in this kind of business. It’s just that sometimes our laboratory is in a high performance jet, and sometimes it’s by remote connections to the Space Station."

Words: Stephenie Livingston
Photos and video: Lyon Duong
Cover video courtesy of NASA