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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."

Go deeper

48 mins ago - World

World leaders react to "new dawn in America" under Biden administration

President Biden reacts delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

World leaders have pledged to work with President Biden on issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, with many praising his move to begin the formal process for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

The big picture: Several leaders noted the swift shift from former President Trump's "America First" policy to Biden's action to re-engage with the world and rebuild alliances.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: The Biden and Harris inauguration

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden watch a fireworks show on the National Mall from the Truman Balcony at the White House on Wednesday night. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden signed his first executive orders into law from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening after walking in a brief inaugural parade to the White House with first lady Jill Biden and members of their family. He was inaugurated with Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Why it matters: Many of Biden's day one actions immediately reverse key Trump administration policies, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, launching a racial equity initiative and reversing the Muslim travel ban.

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.