In a new age of space exploration, nations around the world have centered around a common goal: to send humans to Mars.

Ultimately, their goal is to stay and establish permanent colonies. The support of 13 space agencies and billions of dollars has lead to NASA spearheading the mission to land humans on Mars by 2030.

Creating these colonies and ensuring self-sufficiency will be a monumental challenge. Part of maintaining the survival and prosperity of these colonists calls for a staple of human self-sufficiency: agriculture.

Aaron Dain is a 4th year biology student at Trent University studying astrobotany – a growing field that studies how to effectively grow crops in spacecraft and on celestial bodies like Mars.

Plants, along with every other organism on Earth, have evolved for billions of years under the influence of gravity.

When you remove gravity, you are fighting against billions of years of evolutionary history.  On Earth, we know the shoots of plants grow upward, and roots grow downward – a process called gravitropism.

In space, however, there is no concept of “up” or “down”.

Shoots and roots grow in seemingly random directions.

The loss of gravity has biological consequences for plants and make developing agricultural methods in space challenging.

Aaron is studying how plant hormones affect the growth patterns of plants in space. Aaron and his colleagues designed a device to simulate microgravity conditions named MAJORTOM (Microgravity Apparatus for Jet & Orbital Research Towards Off-planet Meals).

MAJORTOM is a clinostat a device that rotates plants on two different axes to stop the effects of gravitational pull. Plants grown on clinostats cannot tell which way is up or down, and they grow similarly to how they would in space!

Aaron grew a collection of genetically mutated plants on MAJORTOM and compared them to plants grown in normal gravity. The plants had different mutations that affected their sensitivity to the hormones cytokinin and abscisic acid (ABA).

Aaron’s plants were photographed to measure aspects of their roots using computer software.

The hormones were extracted from their tissue to determine the levels of different hormones inside the plants. Aaron compared how the plants grew relative to each other.

He found that:

  1. Growth was consistent among the different plants in microgravity.
  2. The roots grew at wild angles in mirogravity, and they were a bit smaller than normal.
  3. The difference in hormones did not change how the plants responded to microgravity.
  4. All plants showed an increase in ABA, which is commonly known as a stress hormone in plants.
  5. They were all similar in appearance, but it is likely there were cellular and biochemical changes within the plant resulting from stress.

This research can help other scientists develop methods to overcome the agricultural challenges that exist in space!

Astrobotany is an interesting and developing field.

Each step in understanding how plants grow in space is a step toward establishing extra-terrestrial agriculture, and ultimately, our presence beyond Earth.

Thank you Aaron for sharing your research with us.

Here is what he has to say about his experience at Trent University:

“Studying at Trent has given me the unique opportunity to study what I love among a lovely group of faculty and students. I love that Trent’s small size has always made it feel like I get an intimate learning experience and that I matter as a person to the instructors and staff.