Filipino senior scientist from NASA talks about using microscopes to understand plant growth in space

A view of radishes growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) ground unit inside the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Kim Shiflett/NASA)


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been growing plants in the international space station to research and develop ways to provide astronauts with food and nutrients from freshly grown fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, growing food outside the earth’s atmosphere has been more significant because of the planned missions on the colonization of Mars. However, there are several challenges in growing plants in space, like growing plants without soil and gravity.

In an episode of NASA Expert Talk, Elison Blancaflor, a Filipino senior project scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Center, talks about how the development of microscopes contributed to the understanding of plant growth in space.

Advancements in microscope technology

According to Blancaflor, microscopes are getting better each year because they are now assisted by powerful computers that can process digital images. Moreover, new technological ways are developed in labeling cell parts, enabling them to gather more information on how plant cells function.

Unlike early microscopes that could only give basic visual information, modern advanced microscopes can now show the actual plant responses and how things interact inside the cells.

Blancaflor shares that his preferred microscope is a confocal microscope. Confocal microscopes use a laser as a light source, giving a clearer view of the cells. The microscope slices through a part of a plant to generate a three-dimensional digital image of the specific plant part.

Scientists developed a new cell marking technology to tag specific parts of cells by transferring jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein (GFP) to plants. Using the confocal microscope, cells with the GFP can now be marked with different colors. By doing so, the fine structure of the plants can now be uncovered and studied. This advancement in microscope technology helps observe plant growth in space.

Why grow plants in space

Blancaflor said that studying growing plants in space is important because they can be a sustainable source of food in space. Plants recycle water, provide oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, and they keep astronauts happy.

“One of the most important things is that plants keep the astronauts happy. If astronauts are to spend days and even years in space inside the enclosed spacecraft, growing plants will give them connection to Earth. Most of the astronauts we’ve worked with told us that the experiments they love the most are growing plants,” he added.

Another reason why scientists at NASA study plants in space is to get ready for missions to mars. They are hoping to develop life support systems that can grow various crops not only on mars but also on the moon.

Before this can happen, Blancaflor said, they need to understand first how plants, at the cellular level, grow in space using the powerful microscopes discussed earlier.  To efficiently grow plants in space, scientists need to know how the space environment affects flower and seed production, how plants will pollinate in an environment without wind or insects, and how will the radiation of deep space, such as on a mission to mars, affect the next generation of plants.

Knowing how single plant cells react in space environments can guide strategies for growing plants in space. It can also give information on predicting how plants will respond to novel stresses on Earth, such as climate change, pollution, and harsh environment. Furthermore, the sensors that NASA uses for monitoring plants in space can also be applied to agriculture on Earth.

Photo courtesy of Kim Shiflett/NASA

Watch the live stream recording of The NASA Expert Talk here

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