Growing space crops | UDaily

Photo courtesy of Qingwu Meng | Photo illustrations by Jeffrey C. Chase

NASA funds UD’s Qingwu Meng to study food grown during human space exploration

Growing food in space is fraught with daunting challenges, including extreme environmental stressors like radiation and microgravity. Qingwu (William) Meng, an assistant professor of controlled environment horticulture at the University of Delaware, is an expert in plant growth and light, who, as you recall from your elementary school science or Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus it is an essential component for turning a seed into a mature plant.

Meng was awarded an Early Career Investigation Fellow by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to investigate optimizing light for growing food in space. Specifically, she will examine how changing light conditions over time can optimize lettuce productivity and nutritional quality under conditions of elevated carbon dioxide and low relative humidity.

Isn’t all that carbon dioxide in space good for plants? Well, it’s not that simple. Generally, plants respond positively to increased CO2 concentration, but only up to a certain point. For example, at the International Space Station (ISS), the concentration of carbon dioxide is high, averaging about 2,800 parts per million compared to 417 parts per million on Earth. Previous space research has highlighted which crops thrive and struggle with elevated CO2 and low relative humidity. Some leafy greens made the cut.

“We want to see how we can optimize the lighting to maximize the yield and nutritional value of leafy greens, while using little of the much-valuable energy on the space station,” said Meng, who is part of the Science Department of Science. plants and soil within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Under the CO2 conditions of the Earth, the researchers analyzed how plants respond to the quantity and quality of light. But in the super high CO2 conditions of space, humans have a lot to learn.

“For space crop production, we need a deeper understanding of plant physiological responses to light, CO2 and humidity,” Meng said. “All of these factors interact to influence plant growth and development.”

So out of all the delicious produce out there, why study lettuce? Well, the well-known leafy vegetable is a model crop in indoor crop research; in addition, NASA tests have determined that lettuce is one of the most productive crops for producing space crops.

“Lettuce is an ideal research crop because it grows quickly and requires little maintenance,” Meng said. “What we learn from lettuce is typically transferable to other leafy greens. Through this grant from NASA, we will quantify the growth rate and nutritional value of lettuce under different lighting conditions.”

Whether you’re an astronaut or an earthling in another field, the nutritional value of fresh green leafy vegetables is high, a major boost to your physical and psychological health. (Iceberg lettuce has fewer nutrients than most other forms of lettuce and other leafy greens.)

In roughly one-month cycles over the course of a year, student researchers Meng and UD will take a lettuce crop from seed to harvest, allowing for replicability of research findings. One experiment focuses on optimizing light quality over time; the other concerns the amount of light over time.

“Whether these indoor growers are here on Earth or in space, they generally use fixed light settings. But plant growth is a dynamic process,” Meng said. “There is much more room to improve the efficiency of light use if we tailor the light to each stage of plant growth.”

Previous research has shown that a plant’s age is critical in determining how the plant responds to light and other environmental factors.

“By understanding this unique response, considering plant age as a factor, we can further optimize the entire plant growth process,” Meng said.

What space crops on Earth can teach us

You might be thinking: Why study plant growth in space? We have enough problems to solve here on Earth. Falling into this trap of oversimplification fails to recognize the innovations littering the 21st century. The relatively limited time humans have spent in space has already yielded innovations such as GPS, accurate weather forecasting, solar cells and ultraviolet filters. Not to mention ongoing research into disease-fighting, 3D printing, and silent supersonic overland transportation.

Like the goals of this NASA research project, figuring out how to grow more food using less space and energy is the exact kind of innovation Earth needs to curb agriculture’s role in climate change. That kind of challenge is in good hands at UD, one of the nation’s select few land grant, sea grant, and space grant universities. Having worked on many indoor growing research projects with both terrestrial and space targets, Meng sees the applicability of the research findings in both venues. And the agricultural industry and its consumers will gain a lot.

“What we learn through Earth-based environmentally controlled agriculture is applicable to space crop production, and the reverse is also true,” said Meng, who teaches courses in UD’s Sustainable Food Systems courses and is a consultant to the Hydroponics Club. “What we learn in space can be applied to the indoor vertical agriculture and greenhouse production industry.”

Also, as Meng illustrates, the future favors innovative thinkers. Playing the lead character in the movie The Martian, Matt Damon grew potatoes on Mars, which might just sound like science fiction. But with the dizzying speed of technological development, inhabiting other planets may come sooner than you think.

“In the future, humans are bound to be bound to live in space and other planets,” Meng said. “Research is often ahead of its time. Space research is no exception. We have to think about what life will be like many years from now. We look forward to solving a problem when the problem is right in front of us. We have to be proactive.”

About financing

As human exploration prepares to move beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA’s division of biological and physical sciences is shifting its research priorities toward work that will enable organisms to thrive in deep space (TIDES). These efforts will focus on determining the effects of multiple deep space stressors, including deep space radiation and reduced gravity on plants, which serve as model organisms or can be used to produce food for the crew. Meng’s project was one of seven studies nominated by NASA as part of this funding.

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