How Do Plants Grow in Space?

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The formula for plant survival is pretty simple: water, air, nutrients, and sunlight. Despite that basic set of needs, many of us here on Earth are unable to keep a plant alive. So what happens when the planet’s flora leave these cozy environs and enter the final frontier?

Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert J. Ferl at the University of Florida’s Space Plants Lab are leading the charge to find out. Using the weed Arabidopsis thaliana (also known as mouse ear cress, thale cress, or arabidopsis, and nicknamed "crackwort"), the pair are making strides to learn how plants can be cultivated in extreme environments, which could help us here on Earth, and in future extraterrestrial farming ventures.

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From parabolic flights to a trip to the International Space Station, the plants do indeed undergo changes in these unusual conditions, and they do so quickly and quite profoundly, according to Paul and Ferl. Changes in their genes, metabolism, and growing patterns have all been observed.

You can see some of the experiments in action and hear the researches discuss their findings in the Science Friday video below. For more space gardening, check out Diary of a Space Zucchini by NASA astronaut Don Pettit.