“I don’t think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”

So said cosmologist Stephen Hawking last year. Optimist or not, it is clear there are many formidable hurdles to clear before we will be able to live for extended periods away from Earth. It may take centuries before we have truly colonized space, but the prospect — especially after the Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth last week — no longer belongs to science fiction.

A fundamental challenge is to find a way of growing food in space. When Atlantis touched down, it carried with it seedpods from soybeans that had been planted and nurtured, which then germinated, developed into plants and flowered — all in space. It is the first time that a major crop has completed its growth cycle, from planting seeds to growing new seeds, in space. Space poses huge and unique challenges to biotechnicians. Can a seed germinate and grow properly in microgravity? How can water and nutrients be delivered to a plant in conditions of weightlessness? Will genes that evolved over millions of years on Earth work properly in space? Previous experiments have been described as “crude.”

The research initiative, which took 97 days and was conducted aboard the International Space Station, demonstrates that crop production can be accomplished in space. The final frontier — a long-term human presence in space — is a little bit closer.

Soybeans are undoubtedly a major crop, one of the most-consumed foods in the world. The world’s largest seed company, Pioneer, is the brand leader in soybeans, with more than 100 product varieties on the market.

It was Pioneer soybeans that came back with Atlantis. The beans grew in a specialized tray within a growth chamber developed by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics — a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“This was an incredible scientific opportunity for us and our partners,” said Tom Corbin, a researcher on the project. “Studying the effects of soybean plants grown in space will help us expand our knowledge of soybeans and facilitate continued improvement of soybean germ plasm for farmers.”

Now the soybeans and seeds are on Earth, Pioneer and WCSAR scientists will analyze them to determine if the space-grown beans have genes for improved oil, protein, carbohydrates or secondary metabolites that could benefit farmers and consumers. That information will then be used to improve the soybeans’ efficiency and profitability for farmers. And, of course, to increase sales for Pioneer — experiments conducted in space are not cheap.

The success will encourage NASA research on “advanced life-support” technologies for sustaining human colonies on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Earlier this year, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., received $10 million to lead the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training for Advanced Life Support. The center’s director, Cary Mitchell, said they will develop “biospheres” — self-sustaining environments that will be essential for future space colonies. Researchers from Alabama A&M University in Normal, Ala., and Howard University in Washington, D.C., will work with Purdue scientists.

“Although there have been differences in emphasis among the three centers,” said Mitchell, “they are all working toward the same goal: that of enabling self-sustaining human colonization of planetary surfaces beginning during the late second or early third decades of the 21st century.

“The human inhabitants [of biospheres] are going to be eating mainly a vegetarian diet,” Mitchell continued. “They are going to have a lot of crop waste — roots, stems, leaves, things you don’t eat. Microbes will digest these wastes with natural enzymes.”

Another Purdue scientist, Richard Vierling, will also have been encouraged by last week’s beans from space. Vierling arranged for former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn to conduct microgravity experiments on soybean seedlings during his 1998 Space Shuttle Discovery mission.

Those experiments, which tested whether DNA transfer could be conducted in microgravity, proved not only that it could be done, but also that it was more successful and efficient than DNA transfers in a control group on Earth.

Of the soybean seedlings from that first space experiment, 9 percent exhibited the trait introduced. On Earth, less than 1 percent of the control group showed the trait. “Genes were transferred more efficiently to targeted cells in space than on Earth. The results were so significant we’re going to improve our experiemnts and try them again,” Vierling said.

So the prognosis is good. If plants can grow in space, if a life form that evolved on Earth can flourish off it, then we have made a small step toward the colonization of space and have every reason to be as optimistic as Hawking. After all, as the Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) said: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.