Federica Brandizzi, an MSU Foundation professor in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, will be sending seeds on NASA’s Artemis I mission around the moon to better understand how to grow food during space travel.
“This is really about understanding how we can establish and sustain life outside of this planet,” says Brandizzi, who also is a researcher in the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory. “We need to have plants that can survive long-term space travel for generations.”
Plants grow differently in space than they do on Earth. Over the past few decades, scientists have been working to compensate for those changes by getting a better understanding of plant biology and development away from our home planet.
From previous experiments, scientists have learned that space flight affects organisms’ building blocks like amino acids that keep seedlings strong on Earth. The same amino acids would also be nutritious for people who eat the plants.
So, Brandizzi’s lab has selected seeds that are enriched with those amino acids and is sending those into space along with regular seeds. This experiment will allow the MSU team to see if fortifying the seeds on Earth could create a more sustainable path to growing healthier plants — and food — in space.
“In space, there are so many variables, so many things that plants have never experienced before,” Brandizzi says. For example, without Earth’s gravitational pull, plants are weightless in space. And without Earth’s shielding atmosphere, plants encounter higher doses of cosmic rays.
The team’s experiment is one of four selected by NASA’s Space Biology Program to better understand how deep space affects terrestrial biology. After years of preparation, the Artemis I mission, scheduled to launch at the end of August but delayed due to leaks in the launch vehicle, is a first step toward the agency’s future goal of establishing a “long-term human presence on the moon.”
Accompanying MSU’s seedlings aboard Artemis’s Orion spacecraft will be a yeast experiment led by the University of Colorado-Boulder, a fungus experiment led by the Naval Research Laboratory, and an experiment with photosynthetic algae led by the Institute for Medical Research, a nonprofit research corporation.
This also will be the Brandizzi lab’s third experiment aboard a NASA mission.
“I’ve always been fascinated by NASA. It’s just amazing what they’ve been able to do with space flight,” Brandizzi says.
Her team’s earlier work focused on understanding how plants responded to the unique stresses of space. The projects have been different, but their goals are all related to one day growing plants that are suited to thrive on missions to the moon and beyond.
Unlike her team’s other projects, the team can’t adjust on the fly or make changes to the experiment after it launches, in this case literally.
“You only get one shot, so everything has to be perfect,” she says. “I’ve lived through this two times already, so I know it’s going to be a mix of emotions. The preparation is intense, it’s tiring, but it is so rewarding.”