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Space… the final farming frontier

Treatment with one plant hormone appears to make space farming possible

A new research project from Europe could address the question of how to feed humans in space.

With scarce nutrients and weak gravity, growing potatoes on the moon or on other planets seems unimaginable. But the plant hormone strigolactone could make it possible, plant biologists from the University of Zurich have shown.

The hormone supports the symbiosis between fungi and plant roots, thus encouraging plants’ growth — even under the challenging conditions found in space.

The idea has been bounced around for a while now — of one day establishing colonies for people to live on the moon or on other planets. Such visions raise the question of how to sustainably provide food for the people in space.

One possible answer is to cultivate crops. However, the soils on the moon and on other planets are surely lower in nutrients. The alternative — transporting nutrient-rich soil and fertilizers up into space — comes with a high cost.

When looking for a possible solution, the research group working with Lorenzo Borghi of the University of Zurich and Marcel Egli of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts concentrated on the process of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic association between fungi and plant roots.

Their experiments revealed that microgravity hindered the mycorrhization and thus reduced plant uptake of nutrients from soil. But the plant hormone strigolactone can counteract this negative effect. Plants that secreted high levels of strigolactone and fungi due to treatment were able to thrive.

“In order to get crops such as tomatoes and potatoes to grow in the challenging conditions of space, it is necessary to encourage the formation of mycorrhiza,” summarizes research leader Lorenzo Borghi.

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