WE'RE a curious lot. Always looking for new stuff to do. Always looking for new places to go. Maybe that's why we feel it's our destiny to travel to other planets. And not just to drop in, dig around, grab some rocks and catch a ride home on the next feasible trajectory, but to settle in, maybe even build a colony.
Doing that will almost certainly require growing plants in space. Plants are the only option we have for food, beyond what we take with us. They're also natural water purifiers, oxygen generators and carbon dioxide scrubbers. In short, little life-support machines. But what kind of plants should we take into space? Some cereals, a few salad leaves and something pretty to spruce up the capsule? Probably not. It's true that plants have been doing a bang-up job of keeping this planet habitable for aeons, but conditions in space suggest that what grows here is not a good guide to what's needed out there.
With this in mind, an eclectic band of scientists recently converged on a quiet 210-year-old inn just outside Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Their objective was to begin the process of redesigning plants to fulfil the needs of future space settlers. The group included specialists in nanotechnology, genomics, cell biology, engineering and botany. On the agenda: how to take living plants and turn them into programmable life-support machines for space. Bionic plants, if you will.
Their vision is a complete re-engineering of plants-from the ground up, so to speak. And from the ground down, for that matter, since root systems are just as important. When they're done, they hope to have plants that can survive, or even thrive, in the dramatically different conditions found off Earth. That will mean writing new, heritable traits into the plants' genetic code. In the process they would also like to add a few tricks to allow humans to control plant metabolism remotely. And for good measure, they envision implanting minuscule electronic sensor
Contact: Claire Bowles