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October 17, 2018updated 04 Jan 2019 10:22am

This plant hormone could make space farming easier

By Robert Scammell

Scientists have shown that a hormone that encourages symbiosis between plants and fungi could encourage higher crop yields during space farming.

One of the big challenges of space travel and space colonisation is creating a sustainable food supply.

While Matt Damon managed to grow potatoes on Mars in The Martian, soil on the Moon and other planets contain fewer nutrients than on Earth. Transporting nutrient-rich soil and fertilizer is costly and comes with logistical problems.

With the commercial space race heating up and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk saying that we should have a lunar base by now, space farming is becoming increasingly important.

Plant biologists from the University of Zurich and Lucerne University discovered that a plant hormone known as strigolactone encourages symbiosis between a fungi that supplies additional water and minerals to the plant.

During tests in microgravity, the biologists discovered that microgravity hindered mycorrhization – the process of plant-fungi symbiosis – which in turn reduced the plant’s uptake of nutrients from the soil.

When they added a synthetic strigolactone hormone, the scientists found that the plants were able to thrive in low-nutrient soil despite the microgravity conditions.

The plants used in the experiments were petunias, which provide a useful model for plants of the nightshade family, a family that includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.

The many challenges of space farming

“In order to get crops such as tomatoes and potatoes to grow in the challenging conditions of space, it is necessary to encourage the formation of mycorrhiza,” said research leader Lorenzo Borghi from the Universtiy of Zurich.

“This seems to be possible using the strigolactone hormone. Our findings may, therefore, pave the way for the successful cultivation in space of the types of plants that we grow on Earth.”

Despite the breakthrough, there are still many challenges surrounding space farming. Without gravity, plants struggle to orientate their roots and stems.

Artificial light needed to nourish the plants is an important resource in space – energy cannot be wasted and bulbs are limited in supply.

There is also the possibility that growing food in a spacecraft or space base environment could radically alter their genetic codes in a way that is harmful for human consumption.

Space (no pun intended) is also limited, putting extra pressure on crops to return the best possible yield – something that strigolactone could do.

Read more: Brexit food security: An opportunity for vertical farming?

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