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Will astronauts become farmers?

If people are to live in space for extended periods of time, they will need to grow at least part of their food there. Basic research at the University of Missouri-Columbia aimed at understanding the biochemistry of plant growth may provide the foundation for farming in space.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Tom Guilfoyle, professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, is conducting experiments with tobacco plants and the Arabidopsis thaliana weed that he hopes will lead to an increased understanding of the biochemical and genetic processes that control plant development. The knowledge could lead to the ability of future astronauts to sustain themselves in space.

The direction of plant growth in response to gravity is controlled by hormones known as auxins. In a normal plant growing vertically on Earth, auxins travel throughout the plant. If the plant tips over, they migrate to the underside of both the plant stem and roots. The auxins cause the cells on the underside of the stem to elongate and inhibit development of the cells on the underside of the roots. This differential in growth between the upper and lower sides makes the plant reorient itself to a vertical position. In the absence of gravity, however, the direction of growth becomes chaotic.

"One of the biggest problems to be solved before people can live in space for extended periods of time is how to avoid having to constantly ship food to them by rocket," Guilfoyle notes. "But before we can solve this problem, we first must gain a thorough understanding of the basic growth processes involved so that we can counteract the effects of zero gravity."

Guilfoyle's research also has terrestrial implications. Increased understanding of the genetic and biochemical roles of plant hormones could be used to create plants uniquely adapted to specific habitats. For instance, scientists might manipulate plants to produce more auxins to promote root growth. Cytokinin, another type of hormone affecting shoot development, might be altered to make plants such as soybeans generate more or larger seeds or to make vegetables and flower cuttings stay green for weeks in the market.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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