Think about it, the spaceflight environment is completely outside of the evolutionary experience of any terrestrial organism, so how do you “know” what to take out of your metabolic tool box to help you adapt? In space, plants know that they are in a place that lacks their customary cues, and as a consequence they engage a wide variety of responses to help navigate in this novel place.
We monitor plant responses by examining their changing patterns of gene expression – the breadcrumbs they drop as they explore different paths to acclimation. We have been studying this for years now, using the modern tools of biotechnology and the spaceflight opportunities afforded by NASA programs.
Although our research focuses on the fundamental nature of how plants respond to novel environments, our space biology program is about more than just growing plants in space … it is also about understanding how to grow plants in small closed environments and optimizing protected habitats. These are issues that are important to us if we want to grow plants on a space station or on a long journey, but also if we want to grow plants in a greenhouse on Mars or the moon. Think of it as extreme protected agriculture! And indeed, the lessons we have learned and tools we have developed growing plants in a Martian-analog greenhouse in the arctic, and in small chambers on the shuttle and ISS, have direct application to protected agriculture here in Florida.