Earth's tiniest flowering plant could feed and oxygenate astronauts in space
Scientists from Mahidol University in Thailand are conducting groundbreaking research into the potential of watermeal, the world's smallest flowering plant, as a source of nutrition and oxygen for astronauts.
Their study, conducted at the European Space Agency's (ESA) ESTEC technical center in the Netherlands, involves subjecting watermeal to hypergravity conditions using ESA's Large Diameter Centrifuge (LDC).
The LDC, with its impressive 8-meter diameter and four-arm design, allows scientists to replicate gravity levels up to 20 times that of Earth for extended periods. This exceptional facility is made accessible through the HyperGES program, a collaboration between ESA and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
Watermeal, smaller even than duckweed, is an intriguing focus of this research. This rootless, stemless plant typically floats on the surface of water bodies in regions like Thailand and other parts of Asia. Its simplicity and rapid growth rate make it an ideal candidate for studying the effects of altered gravity on plant development.
Tatpong Tulyananda, leading the Mahidol University team, explains their interest in watermeal: "Because watermeal doesn’t have any roots, stems or leaves, it is basically just a sphere floating on a body of water. That means we can focus directly on the effects that gravity shifts will have on its growth and development."
Watermeal offers more than just scientific curiosity. It's a prolific producer of oxygen through photosynthesis and a rich source of protein. In Thailand, it has been part of the local diet for generations, appearing in dishes ranging from soups to salads.
To investigate how hypergravity impacts watermeal, the researchers placed samples in specially designed boxes equipped with LED lighting to replicate natural sunlight.
These boxes were subjected to hypergravity conditions, simulating 20 times Earth's gravity, within the LDC. Following two weeks of experimentation, the scientists will closely examine the watermeal plants and conduct detailed chemical analyses on solid pellet extracts.
This analysis aims to uncover how watermeal responds to hypergravity conditions, providing insights into plant adaptability to varying gravity environments.
This research holds the promise of advancing space agriculture. Insights gained from studying watermeal could pave the way for cultivating plants in space environments, enabling astronauts to produce essential nutrition and oxygen during extended space missions. This research represents a significant step toward self-sustaining space exploration and the potential coloniSation of other celestial bodies.