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Outdoor space offers plant growers some special advantages

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ssleep no In orbit, and thus deprived of the directional attraction favorable to Earth’s gravity, they usually struggle to distinguish between up and down. This makes it difficult for them to carry water and nutrients around them. It also destroys their ability to extract carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis from the air. The pressure from all this seems to increase the level of the genetic mutation that produces a certain amount of radiation – there is a lot of it in space, in the form of cosmic rays and streams from the sun. And mutations are the lifeblood of plant growers.

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Breeders provoke them on the ground by exposing plants and seeds to radioactive isotopes, Xpapers and so on. Most of them are harmful. But some won the top prize, awarding traits like drought tolerance, resistance to mildew or shorter stems preferred by growers, sweeter flavors, brighter colors or thinner skin preferred by consumers. These mutations are snatched from their ancestors by selective breeding and added to varieties worth millions. Therefore, mutations are a big problem.

It’s a company that StarLab Oasis, an Abu Dhabi-based company that originated in Texas called Nanoracks in 2021, believes might be able to do better. As the company’s name suggests, the plan is to do the job using the natural radiation of space. Its researchers plan to begin sending seed payloads to the International Space Station (is being) later this year. Once there, astronauts aboard the station will grow these seeds and allow them to grow and multiply.

Subsequent generations of seeds from this farm will be returned to the land and germinated in the greenhouses of the StarLab Oasis. They will then be exposed to diseases including drought, pathogens, poor soil, excessive heat, and omnivorous insects. And those who best resist these assaults will in turn be born with the hope that something of value will emerge.

An abbreviated version of this approach has had some success, shooting beams of seeds at satellites and returning them to Earth after a period of exposure to cosmic radiation. China claims to have conducted more than 30 such missions and that these missions have resulted in at least 200 improved crop varieties. However, StarLab Oasis president Allen Herbert believes his company is the first private organization created to take this path and, in particular, to grow plants in space for this purpose.

Moreover, mutations are not the only space-saving means that may be of interest to botanists. The stress responses themselves also provide useful information.

Robert Ferrell and Anna Lisa Paul are co-chairs of the Aerospace Plant Laboratory at the University of Florida, Gainesville, which already has experiments aboard. is being. they study how Arabidopsis thalianaIt is a type of cress that is botany equivalent in zoology to zoologists’ mice and fruit flies, and responds to the rigors of tropical freefall. The answer is that plants turn on some genes that would normally remain dormant, while turning off other genes that are normally active.

In particular, as Dr. Ferrell, Dr. Paul and their colleagues discovered, space samples often distract resources from tasks, such as strengthening cell wall stiffness, which are less important when directional gravity is lacking. Conversely, trying to better determine the “up” direction, they become more sensitive to light. In Dr. Paul’s words, plants “hit their metabolic toolbox” to deal with unusual stress. In doing so, they extract tools that are rarely used in the soil, but plant growers may be able to reproduce in beneficial ways by improving gas exchange, leading to better root growth, or reducing stem size.

the is being However, it won’t last forever. Nanorak is implicated in proposing his replacement. As the name of its Abu Dhabi offspring suggests, this is Starlab, a supposedly manned space station designed by a group led by Lockheed Martin.

Starlab wants to become a company, with plant cultivation as one of its sources of income. It is not expected to enter orbit until 2027 and the timing of such projects remains optimistic anyway. But if it really takes off, the idea that one of its units can, in fact, be a plant-growing accessory in the main living space, similar to the conservatory on the grounds, has a pleasant homey vibe. Maybe the crew will rest there after a hard day’s work.

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This article appeared in the Science and Technology section of the print edition under the heading “Serre nel cielo”

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