Deep space exploration

UW astrobotanist paves the way for deep space exploration The Badger Herald

For the past decade, astrobotanist Simon Gilroy and the Gilroy Lab have led University of Wisconsin research into the growth of space plants, and wWith the future of deep space exploration fast approaching, the need for plants in space as sources of food and oxygen is sure to follow.

NASA reported that they are currently in the early stages of the first deep space exploration mission, called the Deep Space Gateway. The mission is expected to reach destinations beyond the Moon, such as Mars, in the late 2020s.

With this in mind and through years of research, Gilroy and his lab have engineered plants on Earth to withstand the stresses of outer space and hope to expand the possibility of deep space exploration by studying how plants react to the complex environment. The goal: To produce food for astronauts and people living on the Moon or, one day, on Mars.

Earlier this month, the results of a Gilroy Lab research study, in collaboration with NASA, has been published. The research aimed to understand the effects of microgravity on the growth of Arabidopsis seedlings grown aboard the International Space Station.

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Richard Barker, a research assistant at the lab, explained that the long-term goal now is to transfer the technology they demonstrated with the Arabidopsis sowing to other crops.

Barker said growing plants aboard a spacecraft that won’t see Earth for a long time not only serves to feed the astronauts, but also provides psychological benefits. Planting and harvesting crops can help maintain astronauts’ sanity and stability, Barker said.

But growing plants in space comes with many challenges. Gilroy said space is a very stressful environment for plants due to the lack of gravity.

Gilroy explained that the structure of water molecules causes them to stick to things, but when there is no gravity, the water is not easily absorbed by the soil or the plant. Instead, the water envelops the surface of the plant, which stimulates the same environmental stress that a plant faces when it drowns in water on Earth.

“When you water a plant on Earth, you don’t think about it, but gravity makes everything work. You just take your watering can, tip it on its side, the water runs out, falls into the ground, then it runs through the ground and you’ve watered your plant,” Gilroy said. “You would never think about how it works, but in space this whole process gets super complicated. There’s no gravity to pull the water. Space is a strange place to put biology.

Molecular pathways activated in plants grown in microgravity show the involvement of “oxidative stress,” which is common in plants experiencing stresses from pathogens or flooding when growing on Earth, Gilroy said. The lab engineered plants on Earth to cope with oxidative stress much better than ordinary plants.

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Sarah Swanson, director of the Newcomb Imaging Center in the Department of Botany at UW and a member of the Gilroy Lab, explained that by observing how gene expressions differ in plants grown in microgravity on the ISS compared to plants grown on Earth, researchers have found that plants are good at dealing with stress on Earth and seem to grow best in space.

With this information and modern technology, the Gilroy Lab can monitor the level of each gene in the plant and modify the genes needed to make the plant better prepared to deal with stress.

“We have made educated guesses based on terrestrial experimentation about genes and plant responses that may be important for plants growing in space and may precisely alter gene expression in key cellular pathways to give plants an advantage when growing in microgravity,” Swanson said.

Gilroy and members of his lab sent normal and genetically modified samples Arabidopsis seeding to the ISS in four separate missions since 2013. As Barker stated in a video by BTN LiveBIGyouhe Gilroy Lab is the first lab to report that seedlings designed for space grew better than normal seedlings.

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Barker said the results of space research missions could also benefit agriculture on Earth.

“The discovery we made about how these plants perceive this stress has the potential to be applied not just in space, but locally here in Wisconsin fields,” Barker said.

According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Madison’s rainfall has doubled in the past 40 years, with the heaviest rainfall typically occurring in late summer. Barker said these rainy events have impacted local agriculture and the livelihoods of farmers in the city.

By understanding how plants respond to spaceflight and designing them to withstand the stresses of outer space, which mimic the stress of flooding, they have the opportunity to create flood-resistant plants that will have an advantage in Madison’s increasingly extreme climate, he explained.

Currently, the Gilroy Lab is working on two major projects. In collaboration with Target and NASA, they will study how cotton reacts to microgravity in space, with the aim of improving the sustainability of cotton cultivation on Earth. Second, they hope to study the effects of a pathogenic stimulus on plants in space to see if it might also enhance their growth.

“We’re just trying to push the lane and help build this roadmap that’s going to take humans to Mars,” Barker said.