Space – the final frontier for food

Thursday, 22 May, 2014
Armstrong, Aldrin, Gagarin … all giants in space exploration. US scientist Gary Stutte may not be in this league, but in the world of ‘space agriculture’, he is a legend. His work on hydroponics and how crops adapt and grow in controlled environments – such as space – fills volumes. Now, thanks to an EU exchange programme, he has shared his expertise with European scientists.

The Controlled Environment Laboratory for Life Sciences (CELLS) at Limerick Institute of Technology in Ireland welcomed news that the EU would fund a two-year senior fellowship exchange for Dr Gary Stutte, a leader in hydroponic-based controlled environments, space agriculture and horticulture.

Stutte’s experience helped put the Limerick Institute on the map as a controlled plant-production environment. He has also helped to develop CELLS’ capacity to produce bioactive ingredients in functional foods – products with potential health benefits beyond basic nutrition – from such sources as agricultural plants, algae, bryophytes and lichen.

His CV reads like the captain’s log for the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek TV series. He led research to define the impacts of space flight and controlled environment conditions on the growth, development, physiology and molecular biology of certain plants.

This included the PESTO (‘Photosynthesis experiment system testing operation’) project – arguably the most complex plant-growth experiment that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has ever conducted in space. The research, conducted in 2002 on-board the International Space Station, led to the publication of highly referenced papers in major plant biology journals, such as Planta.

Stutte has also put his theories into practice by adapting specialised growth chambers for research on how environmental conditions affect the productivity of plants and their nutraceutical value.

A typical example of a recent nutraceutical – a food product that provides health and medical benefits – is omega-3 fatty acids, which are added to margarine to help keep brains healthy.

But all this sci-fi-sounding work has very earthly applications, addressing the growing demand for safer, healthier, higher-quality food to meet the expanding list of specific consumer dietary needs.  

Space is like a laboratory for studying how living organisms respond in the absence of gravity, explains Stutte, which ultimately reveals how they have adapted to conditions on Earth. This understanding leads to methods for increasing crop yields, promoting healthier organisms, and improved products.

“For example, by learning how beneficial bacteria and fungi identify a host plant in the absence of gravity, we hope to develop tools for promoting those relationships on Earth. These mutually beneficial relationships are critical to maintaining food supplies by improving plants’ stress tolerance, reducing losses to disease, and minimising the need for chemical fertiliser,” Stutte continues.

On the map

As a relatively new centre for controlled environment horticulture, CELLS was eager to gain from Stutte’s vast experience, which has included stints with the renowned Dynamac Corporation at the Kennedy Space Center, USA.

Before securing Stutte as a fellow, CELLS had acquired four customised lab-quality plant-growth chambers. So the news in 2011 that CELLS had obtained EU funding to bring Stutte to Ireland was a unique opportunity to match some of the best facilities with the best brains in the business.

 “By using controlled environment technology, organisms such as moss, algae and lichens can be studied, and techniques developed to use them as sustainable sources of protein for food and feed, oil for biofuel, and bioactive compounds to support the biopharmaceutical and nutraceutical markets in the EU and beyond,” notes Stutte.

He applies the plant growth-chamber facilities to the biochemical and biological analysis of plants. Along with the CELLS Research Group, Stutte has advanced capabilities to assess and monitor bioactive quality during the growth process using such research techniques as biochemical profiling and biometric tools.

The CELLS Marie-Curie project was funded by the EU as an International Incoming Fellowships activity.

Controlled Environment Laboratory for Life Sciences
Project Acronym: