The ability of plants to provide a source of food and recycle carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen may prove critical for astronauts who will live in space for months at a time. In addition, plants provide a sense of well-being. At the McMurdo Station for research in Antarctica – a site that, in the dead of winter, resembles the space station in its isolation, cramped quarters, and hostile environment – the most sought-after section of the habitat is the greenhouse.
In 2012, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) studied how plants adapt to micro- and low-gravity environments in a series of experiments designed to determine the ability of vegetation to provide a complete, sustainable, dependable, and economical means for human life support in space. As researchers continue to gain new knowledge of how plants grow and develop at a molecular level, this insight also may lead to significant advances in agriculture production on Earth.
Plant biology experiments on the space station using the European Modular Cultivation System, or EMCS (which was decommissioned in 2018), allowed scientists to investigate plant growth and the processes within their cells to understand how plant life responds to conditions in space. Three plant growth investigations were specifically designed to examine the growth of seedlings in microgravity using this facility.
Combining the proposals of NASA Principal Investigator John Z. Kiss and ESA Principal Investigator Javier Medina, the Seedling Growth investigation conducted a series of experiments: Seedling Growth 1, 2, and 3 in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. The results of these experiments helped researchers understand how plants sense and respond to the space environment.
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