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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

Crypto leads to massive surge in online scams

Expand chart
Reproduced from FTC; Chart: Axios Visuals

Bogus cryptocurrency investments led to an unprecedented increase in online scams last year, according to new data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Why it matters: Cryptocurrency is an easy target because while it's surging in popularity, there's still a lot of confusion about how it works.

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
2 hours ago - Health

New clues emerge on long COVID

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The presence of certain autoantibodies or high amounts of coronavirus RNA in the blood could be indicators a patient has a higher chance of developing long COVID, according to a new study in the journal Cell.

  • Other factors include a person having Type 2 diabetes or the reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus.

Biden says he'll make Supreme Court pick by end of February

President Biden speaks on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden on Thursday said he will announce the nominee for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's replacement by the end of February.

Driving the news: Biden also affirmed that he will nominate a Black woman to replace Breyer, saying "it's long overdue."