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Scientists on a mission to feed astronauts bound for Mars

Scientists on a mission to feed astronauts bound for Mars

In a modest laboratory in Adelaide, a modest-wanting box spins beneath an equally modest signal.

Key features:

  • Scientists at the University of Adelaide are using genetic modification to create food for astronauts
  • They hope the information they gain will probably be applicable for farming on earth as well
  • Public opinion is split on genetically modified fit to be eaten crops in Australia, even after moratoriums have been lifted

However the words “Plants For Space” indicate there is nothing modest about the research taking place here.

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The small box is actually an $80,000 microgravity machine, which may play a vital role in a mission to ship folks to Mars.

The University of Adelaide is using it to check crops it is designing for space, to look how they perform when there is much less gravity.

A blue machine with a silver box on a countertop. A sign above reads 'PLANTS FOR SPACE'.

The microgravity machine is a key part of research into designing food for outer space.(

ABC Landline: Kerry Staight


“Plants obviously did now not evolve to grow in space; it is a somewhat foreign environment for them,” said plant scientist Matthew Gilliham, who’s in charge of the research at Waite Institute.

“There is no gravity draining the water from the soil and, in fact, it clings to surfaces and it can envelop plants totally.

“So one thing that we’re doing here with the microgravity experiments is attempting to program the plant to address those environments.”

An essential part of the space race

Designing food for space was extra the stuff of science fiction movies now not so long ago.

However the race to ship folks to Mars is dashing up, with the US and China both landing rovers on the crimson planet in fresh occasions.

“The amount of labor that wants to be done to accumulate plants ready for being that nutritional supply for space is probably going to take at least 10 years, so we have to start now,” Professor Gilliham said.

Scientists in South Australia are working with researchers and space agencies in Australia and around the sector to tackle the challenge.

Crops are being designed using genetic modification technology, where foreign DNA is supplied to a plant, changing its genetic makeup.

“Folk are starting to understand that science can really initiate to clear up these expansive, grand challenges,” Professor Gilliham said.

A man in a checked shirt and black jacket smiles in a lab.

Professor Gilliham believes scientists have to start now to innovate for future space travel.(

ABC Landline: Kerry Staight


Public opinion divided

The level of acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops, on earth at least, varies greatly across industries and among the public.

South Australia and New South Wales lately lifted long-standing moratoriums on GM crops, bringing them into line with the relaxation of the mainland states.

Tim Morcom, who farms near Bordertown in South Australia’s south-east, was one of the primary in the state to sow GM canola.

“It was a great occasion, I believed, for South Australia to finally catch up with the other states,” he said.

A man in blue pants and jumper kneels beside a bag marked 'HYBRID CANOLA SEED'.

Mr Morcom was pleased when South Australia’s moratorium on GM crops came to an halt.(

ABC Landline: Kerry Staight


Mr Morcom was eager to make investments in herbicide-resistant GM canola to are trying and enhance his weed control.

But it absolutely’s what’s in the pipeline that particularly excites the farmer.

“There’s fair a lot extra breeding that plant breeders can breed into their crops,” he said.

“Frost is such a expansive swear.

Scientists at the University of Adelaide are among folks who have been working on fair that for around two decades.

“We have got a lot of wheat and barley in here that’s been engineered for improved tolerance against frost, against drought and increased yield,” said associate professor Matt Tucker.

“It be all been via its final stages of trialling, and essentially it is ready for a commercial partner to reach in.”

A man in a white coat stands in front of green crops.

Dr Tucker has been working on GM wheat and barley for years.(

ABC Landline: Kerry Staight


‘An easy sell for astronauts’

That’s where things develop into challenging, even with moratoriums no longer in place.

While GM oilseeds are farmed on a large scale in Australia, though-provoking GM wheat, barley and other fit to be eaten crops beyond the research phase is proving tough.

The only country in the sector to release GM wheat is Argentina.

A close-up image of green barley crops.

GM wheat, barley and other fit to be eaten crops have yet to accept a strong place in the market in Australia.(

ABC Landline


“The largest roadblock is calm going to be the market,” Dr Tucker said.

“We can enact a lot of trials in our glasshouses here, and we can enact them in chosen field web sites, then again it wants trade to say, ‘Here’s a technology that’s going to make a distinction.'”

His colleague Professor Gilliham thinks genetically modified crops designed for space will reach up against much less resistance.

Machinery sowing seeds in an empty paddock.

Scientists hope technology designed for space will voice advantages for farmers at home.(

ABC Landline: Kerry Staight


And he’s optimistic that by aiming for the stars, scientists may halt up solving pressing issues back home.

“Space frees us up to really work on these technologies to make rapid gains and enhance recount rate, in the reduction of waste, enhance nutrient consume efficiency in ways that we haven’t been able to enact here on earth, but then voice these solutions back,” he said.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12: 30pm or on iview.

Scientists on a mission to feed astronauts bound for Mars