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A 'Martian'-inspired science project: Growing potatoes in space

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By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published April 6, 2016

“When I watched that movie, I started thinking, ‘What if we could grow potatoes in outer space?’ ”
Gabriella Melendez, student
Hamlin Park School 74 in Buffalo

UB biologists are serving as consultants on the ultimate middle school science project: farming potatoes aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The experiment is the brainchild of Gabriella Melendez, a student at Hamlin Park School 74 in Buffalo. She came up with the idea after seeing “The Martian,” the sci-fi movie in which actor Matt Damon plays a potato-growing astronaut trapped on Mars.

“When I watched that movie, I started thinking, ‘What if we could grow potatoes in outer space?’” she said. “If we could start growing them in outer space, then maybe we could take it a step further — like the movie — and grow them on Mars.”

Armed with this inspiration, Melendez enlisted the help of classmates Toriana Cornwell and Shaniylah Welch to design an experiment for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a nationwide initiative that selects student projects to launch into orbit.

Winning was a long shot. But to improve their chances, the team expanded to include UB faculty members James O. Berry and Mary Bisson, plant biologists who helped answer questions that included what kind of fertilizer to use, how to transport potatoes in frigid conditions, and how to prevent a potato farm from becoming a mess in orbit (imagine the mayhem that tiny specks of free-floating dirt or water could cause in microgravity).

The work paid off: Earlier this year, the experiment was chosen as one of several that will go into space. Though no official launch date has been set, the tubers are expected to head to the ISS this summer, hitching a ride to the station with a SpaceX rocket.

Space-born potatoes to be planted at UB

UB plant biologists James O. Berry and Mary Bisson serve as advisers on the space potato project. Photo: Douglas Levere

If all goes well, the spuds will germinate in orbit and then return to Buffalo after about six weeks. At that point, the team plans to plant the tubers in UB’s Dorsheimer greenhouse to test how the space-born potatoes fare on Earth.

The idea to continue growing the tubers at UB came from Bisson, who suggested that the team cultivate the space potatoes alongside Earth potatoes with the goal of seeing whether spuds started in orbit have the same nutritional value as their land-bound counterparts.

“That was the game-changer,” said Hamlin Park teacher Andrew Franz, the students’ mentor on the project. “A lot of different crops have been grown on the station, but continuing to grow them on Earth is more rare, and it’s what makes the experiment really unique.”

A farm in a tube

Berry and Bisson — both professors of biological sciences at UB — are ideal advisers for the space potato project: Berry has done research that required him to grow plants in sterile environments and without soil, and Bisson has studied how plants respond to gravity.

The potatoes will be placed in a tube like this one and grown aboard the International Space Station. Photo: Douglas Levere

 “Dr. Berry and Dr. Bisson have been almost colleagues to the girls,” Franz said. “They just started brainstorming with the girls, throwing out ideas.”

“They gave us wonderful ideas on different things to do, like what environment the potato needs to be in,” Melendez said.

In consultation with the professors and Franz, the students are pursuing a design that involves growing the tubers in a tube. The set-up is spartan: No dirt. Minimal moisture. A small amount of plant preservative mixture to prevent microbial contamination.

Potatoes don’t need much to survive, and the team is hoping only for a tiny amount of growth — simple germination — while the experiment is in space.

The spuds they’ll be using are tiny seed potatoes of the Upstate Abundance variety, a disease-resistant breed obtained from Cornell University researchers through Sharon Bachman, a community educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County, who is also advising the project.

#SpudLaunchers

Months before launch, the Hamlin Park experiment is already generating national interest: It was featured in The Buffalo News and WBFO locally, and in Scientific American online.

This January, Cornwell, Melendez and Welch traveled to Washington, D.C., for the White House State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math address, where they got to Skype with scientists in Antarctica and ask an astronaut whether he thought it would be possible to grow potatoes on Mars. (“More or less, he said yes,” relays Franz, who chaperoned the trip.)

Franz asks members of the UB community, as well as other Buffalonians, to support the project by sharing stories and new developments under the hashtag #SpudLaunchers on social media. (He’ll be posting to this hashtag on Twitter as the launch date gets closer).

Berry and Bisson are looking forward to seeing how the students’ experiment unfolds.

“I have been impressed with the originality of their project, and the dedication and enthusiasm they have brought to their plant-space research idea,” Berry said. “It is rewarding to work with students interested in plant biology at this early stage of their studies, and to see how they have worked to resolve issues associated with getting their project ready for launch.”

“I found it very exciting to see how the girls responded well to criticism, and at the same time took charge of the project to work creatively to solve difficulties,” Bisson adds.

And to think — it all began with a trip to the movies.

“All I could say is that hard work pays off,” Melendez says. “I'm just happy that I brought my school some recognition — we’re doing this at a public school, and I’m proud that we’re known for something good.”

About the Student Space Flights Experiment Program

SSEP is undertaken by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in partnership with Nanoracks, LLC. This on-orbit educational research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks, LLC, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.