Bacteria-coated broccoli sent to space

These “beneficial” microbes may help plants grow better in extreme low-gravity environments

May 29, 2018 09:47 pm | Updated 09:47 pm IST - Washington

The aim is to learn how to grow vegetables in challenging conditions. Deborah Rigg/UW

The aim is to learn how to grow vegetables in challenging conditions. Deborah Rigg/UW

Scientists have sent broccoli seeds coated with a healthy dose of good bacteria to space in a quest to find a viable way for astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) to grow their own vegetables — and possibly one day on the Moon or Mars.

Six broccoli seeds were aboard the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft that launched this week from Wallops Island, Virginia, as part of a space station cargo resupply mission. Three of the seeds are travelling to space as it is, while the other three were coated with two different species of bacteria, developed at the University of Washington, that can live inside crop plants and improve their growth. These “beneficial” microbes, also called endophytes, may also help plants grow better in extreme low-gravity environments, and where nutrients or water could be lacking.

The goal of the experiment, conducted by students at Valley Christian High School in San Jose in California, is to learn how to grow vegetables in the challenging, microgravity conditions of the space station — and eventually on the Moon and Mars — as human space exploration expands.

Farming in space

Developed by a team of 11 students, the initial ground experiments proved successful, as the broccoli grew faster and significantly larger than the control study. “It would be ideal if we could grow crops for astronauts at the space station or who are lunar-or Mars-based without needing to ship potting mix or fertiliser,” said Sharon Doty, a professor at University of Washington.

“We would like to be able to get plants to grow in what is available with a minimum input,” Ms. Doty said.

Previous research has found that plants can better tolerate drought and other environmental stressors with the help of natural microbes that provide nutrients to their plant partners.

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