Farming Mars and the Moon Focus of Study Led By UM Dean

Scientists studying use of plants in spaceflight life-support systems

OXFORD, Miss. – The question of how to grow edible and useable crops on the moon and Mars is being explored by a University of Mississippi administrator directing a cutting-edge research project aboard the International Space Station.


John Z. Kiss, dean of the UM Graduate School and professor of biology, is principal investigator on “Novel Explorations into the Interactions between Light and Gravity Sensing in Plants.” Part of the Fundamental Space Biology program at NASA, the program is designed to study light and gravity signaling in plants and their effects on cell growth and proliferation. It also has a strong relevance for improving crop species on Earth to obtain increased production and sustainability.

The first phase of the four-part experiment is set for launch and execution on the space station in March 2013. The next three launches are set for later in 2013, 2014 and 2015.


“Since plants will be a necessary part of bioregenerative life support needed to send humans to Mars and beyond, the knowledge obtained from our space flight experiments will be critical for developing ways to effectively use plants in these life support systems,” Kiss said.


“In addition, from this type of research, improvements in agricultural biotechnology can be realized and can contribute to goals of increased production, lessened environmental impact and sustainability of agricultural production. Therefore, in the long term, our research also is very relevant to improving the characteristics of crop plants to benefit human agriculture on Earth.”


Kiss is collaborating with F. Javier Medina of Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas in Madrid, Spain. UM post-doctoral researcher Kathy Milar and freshmen Neel Patel of Water Valley and Logan Williams of Collinsville, Tenn., are assisting Kiss. Private contractor Space-X will launch the experiments to the ISS.


The hypothesis of their research is that positive red-light-sensing, which was known in older plant lineages, is masked by normal 1-g conditions in more recently evolved lineages. Through the experiment, the scientists aim to confirm and characterize the red-light-dependent phototropic response in flowering plants.


The experiment will be conducted with different genotypes of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana in experimental containers placed in the European Modular Cultivation System, a large incubator that provides control over the atmosphere, lighting and humidity of growth chambers to study plant growth, on the ISS. The experiment containers contain white, blue and red lights that can be controlled from the ground to expose the plants to different kinds of light.


“By using the two centrifuges in the EMCS, it is possible to carry out the experiment in microgravity and fractional gravity, along with the 1-g control, within the same space environment,” Kiss said. “Following a six-day time course in the EMCS, the samples will be either frozen or chemically fixed and returned to us. Additionally, images will be taken throughout the whole experiment and downloaded real time.”


Kiss has worked with NASA since 1987 and has served as principal investigator on six spaceflight projects on the space shuttle, the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station. This project started in 2011 and was selected through an international competition by competitive peer-review panel and then by NASA.


UM administrators express great optimism for the success of Kiss’ program.


“Dr. Kiss’s research collaborations with NASA make him the foremost expert in this invaluable and potentially beneficial program to all humanity,” said Glenn Hopkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “We are most pleased to have him as a part of the College of Liberal Arts and wish him every success in his work.”


“I applaud Dr. Kiss for his commitment to remaining active in his research and congratulate him on this most recent success,” said Alice Clark, vice chancellor of research and sponsored programs. “This new dimension of research – the space seedlings experiment – is the kind of exciting project that will most certainly engage and inspire students to pursue graduate programs and consider careers in research.”


For more information, visit the Seedling Growth Experiment.