Growing food in space, and in cities where there’s not much space

Cold and unforgiving with no gravity, no atmosphere, no water, space is not a great place to grow a garden. 

Earth doesn’t have those problems, but this planet’s inhabitants are likely to face increasing challenges producing enough food to feed themselves in the future. Those challenges include a burgeoning population, a growing number of areas beset by famine and rising temperatures with more frequent severe weather driven by climate change.

Marshall Porterfield, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, conducts an experiment on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft,  known as the Marshall Porterfield, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, conducts an experiment on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft, known as the "Vomit Comet." He and other researchers were studying how planet cells responded to microgravity while he was head of life sciences at NASA.

To develop new methods of growing plants in harsh environments, former NASA life sciences head Marshall Porterfield, now a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue, wants to collect and analyze data about, well, pretty much everything.

The traditional way of supporting life sciences is limited because researchers only collect data necessary for their individual experiments, Porterfield says. But there are actually hundreds of thousands discrete variables that can now be measured, from genes (genomics) to proteins (proteomics) and beyond.

“This idea is called integrated -omics,” Porterfield says. “Now using modern analytics we can collect data related to every known gene, and the life sciences community can continue to use that data exploring new ideas for the foreseeable future.”

Porterfield and April Carroll, former director of phenomics for Purdue’s College of Agriculture, will discuss how to feed a challenged world and grow food in space during Dawn or Doom ’17, a conference on the risks and rewards of new technology at Purdue. Dawn or Doom will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 26 and 27, on the Purdue West Lafayette campus and is free and open to the public.

Dawn or Doom, which features a track called Designing Food, also will include a featured talk by Robb Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto and a World Food Prize laureate for his work on growing higher yielding crops. Other tracks at the conference include Designing Humans, Designing Cities, Designing Information and Designing the Workforce. Visit www.purdue.edu/dawnordoom for more information.

How we solve these complex problems and what our agricultural future may look like also will be explored in a zipTrip at Dawn or Doom, a livestream broadcast by the Purdue College of Agriculture to high schools across the country and to a live audience at Purdue. The stream will include Purdue professors and Raymond Wheeler, a NASA scientist in exploration research and technology. 

April Carroll poses for a portrait. April Agee Carroll, former director of phenomics for the College of Agriculture, in the Phenomics Tool Development bay of Purdue’s $15M field phenotyping facility, the Indiana Corn and Soybean Innovation Center.

Porterfield spent five years heading the life sciences division at NASA before coming back to Purdue. His research approach of integrated “-omics,” coupled with his research in closed system agriculture, led him to meeting Carroll, now vice president of research and development at AeroFarms, a firm focused on the science and technology for environmentally sound, year-round farming near population centers.

Carroll studies phenomics, or the study of phenomes, which are observable traits of a plant. She’s interested in how plants express themselves under different environments, such as in vertical farming, basically high-rise greenhouses that could be used to grow produce in urban areas.

Vertical farming indoors in controlled environments has advantages such as reducing the environmental impact of transporting crops from farm to city, while also reducing the need for pesticides and other chemicals. Plants grown this way are being used to produce human proteins as well.

“In controlled environments you can safely produce transgenic crops, genetically engineered to produce human proteins to harvest and use as therapeutics in humans,” Porterfield says. “For example, we can grow insulin in bacteria but this opens the door for many other therapeutic human proteins that cannot be grown in bacteria.”

Researchers and astronauts are experimenting with space agriculture on the International Space Station, aiming to refine processes for growing crops in space effectively, requiring new technologies and science to overcome the logistics of the space environment. For example pioneering research led by NASA produced the first LED technologies designed for growing plants without sunlight.

The dawn? Perhaps a colony on Mars. The doom? “We may need the same technology to save masses of humanity here on Earth if we continue on our path of global environmental climate collapse,” Porterfield says.

Writer: Kirsten Gibson, technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8190, gibson33@purdue.edu

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