SALT LAKE CITY — As humanity nears more extensive space travel, it has become important to understand how plants fit into survival in the cosmos. Scientists from the University of Utah and associated research centers are running an experiment analyzing the capabilities of Earth’s plants in space.
One of the project’s chief scientists, University of Utah chemistry professor Ming Hammond, is analyzing in real time whether plants engineered to bio-manufacture specific proteins can do so in space.
The experiment, dubbed Hydra-1, lies in the field of synthetic biology, which seeks to engineer biological systems to mimic naturally occurring organisms. Scientists have been altering genetic code for decades, and it has become routine in labs to alter, re-design and even engineer DNA.
Synthetic biology can create protein designs to expand the set of natural protein creations by organisms for new processes, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. This is what Hammond and her colleagues seek to use.
Organisms naturally produce a variety of proteins as they go through their functions, and scientists hope they can engineer plants to not only produce food and oxygen in space but also a potentially needed medication or polymer to be used in future long-term space exploration missions.
The genetically engineered plants are stored in “plant cubes,” which are chambers designed to allow researchers to conduct experiments in space. The cube company, Ice Cubes, provides the cubes and helps scientists build their experiments within them.
They then make arrangements for the plants to be launched into space on rockets headed for the International Space Station. Once the cubes have been installed, control is given over to the researchers. The cubes can then be interacted with and the experiments monitored as needed.
“The benefit is that you can take seeds with you,” Hammond told UNews in a recent press release. “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 an established process on Earth, but translating it to space is a whole different beast. Hammond and her team faced troublesome constraints as they battled with the need to store the plants in the small, cube-shaped enclosures without any tending from the space crew at the station.
A major challenge for the scientists was the ability to tell whether or not the experiment was actually a success. Scientists didn’t even know if they would get the plants back at the end, let alone if they would have the ability to take samples and test the plants to see whether they were producing their desired proteins as they would on Earth.
The solution? Engineer the plants to change color as they produce their desired proteins, while monitoring the process with cameras. This solution has been previously utilized but has never been modified for use in space.
“We had to take something that worked beautifully in the most carefully controlled and nurturing conditions,” Hammond told UNews, “and get it to work under very stringent, harsh and challenging conditions without human intervention in the plant cube.”
According to the International Space University, the seeds will be kept hydrated using a built-in water supply and exposed to light through LEDs. The experiment is expected to take a total of 10 days and was to began on Dec. 18. The cubes will return to Earth in early January, and scientists will get to work analyzing the data at the University of Strasbourg. The plant DNA and molecules will be sequenced and examined to better understand plant metabolism.
“In space science, this mission helped to develop the plant cube technology, which was designed with the vision to study plant growth on the moon,” Hammond told KSL.com. “The plant cube is intended to be an open platform, so we will share our experience gained from this experiment to help other people plan their own plant cube experiments.”
Other collaborators on Hydra-1 spanned two continents, including the NASA Ames Research Center, the University of Strasbourg and the International Space University.
Hammond has been monitoring data for the experiment while simultaneously conducting a control test in her lab involving the same plants producing the same proteins, but a day behind the space experiment in order to mimic temperature conditions.
The plants were launched on Dec. 5 at NASA Kennedy Space Center, safely nestled within a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket already on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Hammond told KSL.com Wednesday the plants sprouted on schedule after four days.
"Interestingly, they do look different than the ground control that we are running in the lab at (the) U. of U.,” she explained. “Which shows how important the ground experiment is. The experiment will continue to the new year, and more analysis will be needed before we can finalize the results.”
The scientists did encounter a brief problem in the plants’ first days in space in which they had to figure out how to water them without spraying the water. The droplets stayed floating and would both fail to water the plants and obscure the cameras for observing.
Hammond said she and Rebekah (Kitto), a graduate student on the project, were up until the early hours of the morning on a consulting call with engineers who were "sending instructions and downloading videos from the plant cube."
"Together we got things to work," Hammond added.
Professor Chris Welch, a Hydra-1 coordinator, told ISU News: “All of the project team are very pleased to launch Hydra-1 to the ISS with ICE-Cubes and are looking forward to the high-quality science that its innovative design and operations can provide. Hydra-1 has been designed not just for this mission but to have elements applicable to lunar surface operations. We hope that this will not be its only trip to space.”