Giphy: NASA

Astronauts have grown cabbage and tomatoes in space. They have watched flowers bloom. Now, a seed experiment — scheduled to head to the International Space Station at 4:39 a.m. EDT (watch the liftoff live here) — will help to determine how much a key molecule that allows plants to grow upright against Earth's gravity can be tailored in plants grown in space.

Why it matters: The experiment is another step toward long-term space living and the colonization of other planets, which would require astronauts to grow plants for food and to recycle them as a source of oxygen and carbon. It could also help to improve growing techniques here on Earth.

The objectives:

Perfecting plants for space: Researchers are sending up strains of Arabidopsis thaliana, the fruit fly of plant research, which produces different amounts of lignin.

  • Like bones in humans, lignin supports plants and delivers water and nutrients throughout their tissues. Lignin also sequesters carbon and is a form of dietary fiber we consume but can't digest.
  • Scientists plan to analyze the expression of genes, proteins and enzymes in the different mutants to figure out how much lignin a plant needs in space.
  • Ultimately, they want to produce nutritious, more easily digestible plants whose undigested parts can be more readily recycled as a source of oxygen and carbon, says Washington State University's Norman Lewis, who leads the experiment along with colleagues from Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA, the University of New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

A "Rolls Royce" of plants in space: This is the latest experiment for the Advanced Plant Habitat, a prototype growth chamber set up on the space station last year.

  • With an expanded range of LED lights to grow a variety of plants and more than 180 different sensors that measure temperature, light, humidity, air composition and other conditions, "it's the Rolls Royce of growing plants in space," Lewis says.
  • Ask any astronaut, says Lewis, and they will tell you, "When you see something living in this extreme environment, it is a reminder of home."

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