Can We Grow Plants in Outer Space?

In his recent novel “The Martian,” author Andy Weir tries to present a scientifically accurate portrayal of a human astronaut stranded on the planet Mars.  One of the ways the astronaut attempts to survive is by planting and growing Earth potatoes in the Martian soil.  But would this really work?

The plants that we are familiar with today evolved to complete their entire lifecycle in normal Earth gravity.  But could Earth plants complete their life cycle under altered gravitational conditions?  This question is increasingly intriguing as scientists look ahead at human life-support systems for long-term space travel.

Previous experiments have shown that plants can complete an overall seed-to-seed lifecycle in space.  But plant life goes through two distinct phases: vegetative growth and reproductive growth.  Our knowledge of hypergravity’s impact on reproductive growth is still very limited, especially at a molecular level.

Researchers at the University of Toyama and Kanazawa University in Japan recently conducted a study using arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard.  (Arabidopsis has long been used to study plant biology, and was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced.)  Microarray analysis was used to identify genes whose expression may be modulated in response to hypergravity.

After subjecting plants to forces 300 times those of normal gravity for 24 hours, the scientists found a five-fold inhibition of pollen development and germination.  Their conclusion was that hypergravity substantially changes the expression of several genes involved in the signaling and biosynthesis of plant hormones.

The scientists used an Agilent 2100 Bioanalyzer System and Agilent Gene Expression Microarrays for their research.

For more information go to:

Effects of hypergravity stimulus on global gene expression during reproductive growth in Arabidopsis

The Martian (novel)

Agilent 2100 Bioanalyzer System

Agilent Microarrays