New Mexico researchers and collaborating institutions are known to send some unique and unusual plants and vegetables into space – take for instance the green chile launch of 2019 – and next week, UNM Biology Professor David Hanson and his team are sending up tomatoes.
“Nutrition is a big issue for astronauts and eating dehydrated food gets old fast and plants are important for mental health,” Hanson said. “Astronauts really like the connection to earth that plants provide. What is exciting is that there is a lot of science needed to learn how to grow plants efficiently and reliably for future space missions.”
The tomatoes will take flight Monday, Jan. 29 on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of project Trichoderma Associated Space Tomato Inoculation Experiment – or TASTIE. Researchers hope to better understand how plants grow without gravity and if there are ways to help plants cope with the stressors involved with growing in space flight.
“Plants know up from down, right? They don't have a brain or anything like that, but shoots grow upwards, and roots grow downwards. They clearly are using directional information,” said Professor Simon Gilroy, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Researchers explain that when gravity is removed from the equation, everything gets complicated. The team, which includes UNM researchers who are part of UNM’s Grand Challenge Sustainable Space Team, is hoping the fungus they’re sending up along with the tomatoes will be a game changer. The fungus, Trichoderma, is one of the most prevalent fungi present in all kinds of soils. On Earth, the fungus is known to be beneficial for plant growth, making plants they grow with hardier for later encounters with threats and stressors.
“The role of UNM scientists is to determine if the fungus affects how the tomatoes use water and CO2 to grow better. The capabilities at the UNM Center for Stable Isotopes will be critical for measuring properties of the air on the space station and comparing that with the plant tissues when they return to earth,” Hanson said.
The flight into space alone can be an added stressor for the plants. Astronauts train for years before traveling into space, but the same isn’t possible for a tomato seed. The research team says they are particularly interested in the stressors that stem from a lack of gravity. Pair the fact that gasses move differently in an environment without gravity with the lower availability of oxygen on space flight, and it would make sense that plants in space tend to experience more oxidative stress.
The ISS will send data of the conditions onboard back to the researchers so they can simulate those same growing conditions back on Earth. That will allow the team to isolate the effect of gravity in the experiment. Researchers will also be able to use the data they collect from the space flight experiment to evaluate how accurate their current methods are of simulating a lack of gravity for plant growth experiments on Earth.
“The moon and Mars — where I think we're going to go — they're a long way away. For the moon, it is feasible to constantly send your food,” Gilroy said. “But if you have a long-term presence, it's going be expensive and difficult. Once you get to the distances of places including, Mars, eventually, you're going to have to be able to be self-sustaining at a significant level.”
UNM students interested in working on a NASA MINDS challenge to innovate technologies to autonomously grow crop plants for Artemis missions (travel to the moon and Mars), please visit the CHILI HOUSE application. Hanson is also available to meet with undergraduates at other institutions in New Mexico to work on the challenge next year.