The International Space Station (ISS) National Lab is a valuable platform for a variety of plant research that could lead to a better understanding of how plants develop as well as advances in agricultural and commercial applications.
Plants evolved in a gravity environment, and gravity plays a key role in plant development. For example, gravity-sensing mechanisms in plants are critical to their survival on Earth, and buoyancy (a gravity-dependent phenomenon) is a factor in various plant processes. The ISS National Lab allows researchers to study fundamental plant development processes without the masking effect of gravity. Researchers can also study how plants react to the stressful microgravity environment, which could provide insights into improving plant growth in harsh conditions on Earth, such as drought and extreme temperatures.
Researchers from the University of Florida have carried out a series of experiments on the ISS National Lab aimed at exploring how gravity affects the way roots orient themselves downward. Information about plant structure and behavior gained from spaceflight experiments such as these allow scientists to better understand how plant processes work on the ground and how plants respond to novel environments.
“Taking gravity out of the equation gives us insight into the inherent mechanisms of how plants work. And the better you understand that, the better equipped you are to design experiments on Earth to build better crops and expand productivity—in addition to being able to take plants with us when we leave Earth’s orbit for extended missions or colonies on Mars.”
Anna-Lisa Paul, University of Florida
Another plant research experiment currently onboard the ISS (by a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison) is aimed at examining the growth of the common grass species Brachypodium disachyon in microgravity. Results from this study could lead to a better understanding of how grass and cereal crops respond to stress.
Budweiser, one of the many innovative companies utilizing the ISS National Lab for microgravity research, is exploring the effects of spaceflight on the germination of strains of an important food crop, barley (Hordeum vulgare), including proprietary strains under development. An important ingredient for Budweiser, barley is also the fourth largest cereal grain grown in the world and is grown in diverse environments. Studying barley in microgravity may reveal new information about the germination process and identify key genes that enable some cultivars (plants of the same species that possess genetic differences) to survive in stressful environments, which could improve barley production on Earth.