Moon Plants Plants Don’t Need Gravity to Grow. Here We Come, Mars!

Plants don’t need gravity to grow, according to a new study out of the University of Florida (UF). When study authors Anna Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences monitored images of small, white Arabidopsis thaliana seeds growing both on Earth and in nutrient-rich gel in zero-gravity orbit, they found that both sets of seeds—exposed to the same temperature and environmental conditions—sprouted roots with identical, standard patterns of growth: waving and skewing. Waving is the process by which root tips grow back and forth. Skewing occurs when a plant’s roots grow at an angle rather than a straight vertical line. Both behaviors have previously been linked to gravity

“The skewing and waving of roots has always been thought to be dependent on gravity, but as the images from our experiment started to come down from the International Space Station in early 2010, it was clear that gravity was not required after all,” Paul said in a UF media release. “Roots in space make these same kinds of movements and choices that you see on the ground.”

The findings of the NASA-funded experiment, published in the December 2012 issue of the journal BMC Plant Biology, are of particular interest to “space agriculturalists,” Ferl added, as they suggest that plants could likely be cultivated in low-gravity environments, such as on a long-term mission to Mars, or in reduced-gravity environments such as in specialized greenhouses on Mars or the moon.

“As space agriculturalists, we really want to know that when we move to the moon, when we move to Mars, which don’t have the same amount of gravity that we have, can we still grow plants? Will their roots still work right in a fractional gravity environment?” Ferl asked. “And the answer is ‘yes, definitely.’”