The Future of Space travel
For humanity to push the boundaries of space exploration, we’re going to need plants to come along for the ride. Not just spinach or potatoes, though—plants can do so much more than just feed us.
“There’s a lot of promise, potential and hope that we can use the tools developed in synthetic biology to solve problems.” says Chemistry Professor Ming Hammond, “not just that you would find in space, but where you have extreme limitation of resources.”
Synthetic biology is a field that engineers biological systems. In this case, the team is looking at plants as potential bio-factories. Every organism naturally produces countless proteins as part of its biological function, so why not engineer a plant to produce, say, a needed medication or a polymer that could be useful in future long-term space exploration missions?
“The benefit is that you can take seeds with you,” Hammond said. “They’re very lightweight. They grow and gain biomass using the CO2 that we breathe out. And if those plants can produce proteins on demand—we know that plants are able to produce anti-viral and anti-cancer antibodies on a large scale.”
Synthetic biology is already established on Earth. But translating that same technology to spaceflight requires different considerations. Hammond and her team encountered many of these constraints when adapting their experiment to operate within the small (10cm by 10cm) CubeSat enclosure.
For spaceflight, the team decided to engineer plants to change color as they produced the target protein, and monitor the progress with a camera. It’s an elegant and innovative solution, based on a previously published method, but adapted for the constraints of a cube in space.
“We had to take something that worked beautifully in the most carefully controlled conditions,” Hammond said, “and get it to work under very harsh and challenging conditions inside the plant cube.”
The plant cube was designed with the forward vision of preparing for plant growth studies on the moon, and is a technology development step towards that goal.
The entire experiment took 10 days and appeared to show successful protein production. The results from the team, including collaborators from NASA Ames and International Space University, were published this year.
It takes a lot of time and effort to put equipment in space, and Hammond appreciates the many hours of work that the team has put in. “We are a small but dedicated group of volunteers,” she said. “People worked nonstop to fix last-minute things that came up before launch. I’m just really proud of the effort everyone’s put in.”
Hammond and her family traveled to the NASA Kennedy Space Center to watch the Dec. 5, 2019 launch of her experiment, which was nestled within a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
“At the launch of my experiment, we had a chance to see Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts that flew the first manned SpaceX flight on May 30, 2020,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity to share the launch with my son, (6 years old at the time), and other family members. Of all the things I’ve done in science this, for them, is the one that probably inspires the most interest and awe.”
By Paul Gabrielsen