In a modest laboratory in Adelaide, a seemingly modest box turns under an equally modest sign.
- Scientists at the University of Adelaide use genetic modification to design food for astronauts
- They hope that the knowledge gained will also be applicable to agriculture on land.
- Public opinion divided over genetically modified edible crops in Australia, even after moratoria lifted
But the words “Plants For Space” suggest that there is nothing modest about the research going on here.
The little box is actually an $ 80,000 microgravity machine, which could play a vital role in a mission to send people to Mars.
The University of Adelaide is using it to test the cultures it designs for space, to see how they behave when there is less gravity.
“Plants obviously haven’t evolved to grow in space; it’s a somewhat alien environment for them,” said plant scientist Matthew Gilliham, head of research at the Waite Institute.
“There is no gravity that drains water from the soil and, in fact, it clings to surfaces and can completely envelop plants.
“So one thing we’re doing here with the microgravity experiments is trying to program the plant to deal with those environments.”
An essential part of the space race
Not that long ago, designing food for space was more of a science fiction movie.
But the race to send people to Mars is accelerating, with both the United States and China having landed on the Red Planet in recent times.
“The amount of work that needs to be done to prepare plants to become this nutritional source for space is probably going to take at least 10 years, so we have to start now,” Professor Gilliham said.
Scientists from South Australia are working with researchers and space agencies in Australia and around the world to meet the challenge.
Crops are designed using genetic modification technology, where foreign DNA is introduced into a plant, thereby altering its genetic makeup.
“People are starting to understand that science can really start to solve these big, big challenges,” Professor Gilliham said.
Divided public opinion
The level of acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops, at least on earth, varies widely from industry to industry and among the public.
South Australia and New South Wales recently lifted long-standing moratoria on GM crops, harmonizing them with the rest of the states on the continent.
Tim Morcom, who grows near Bordertown in southeastern South Australia, was one of the first in the state to plant GM canola.
“It was a great opportunity, I thought, for South Australia to finally catch up with the other states,” he said.
Mr. Morcom wanted to invest in herbicide resistant GM canola to try to improve his weed control.
But it’s what’s in the pipeline that particularly turns the farmer on.
“There is so much more selection that plant breeders can reproduce in their crops,” he said.
“Frost is such a big problem.
Scientists at the University of Adelaide are among those who have been working on this for about two decades.
“We have a lot of wheat and barley here that was designed for better tolerance to frost, drought and increased yield,” Associate Professor Matt Tucker said.
“Everything has gone through its final stages of testing, and it is basically ready for the arrival of a business partner.”
“An easy sale for astronauts”
This is where things get tough, even with the moratoriums no longer in place.
While GM oilseeds are grown on a large scale in Australia, it is proving difficult to move GM wheat, barley and other edible crops beyond the research phase.
The only country in the world to market GM wheat is Argentina.
“The biggest hurdle will still be the market,” Dr. Tucker said.
“We can do a lot of testing in our greenhouses here, and we can do it at selected sites, but the industry has to say, ‘This is technology that is going to make a difference.'”
His colleague Professor Gilliham believes genetically engineered crops designed for space will meet less resistance.
And he’s optimistic that by aiming for the stars, scientists could end up solving pressing problems at home.
“The space allows us to really work on these technologies to make quick wins and improve the growth rate, reduce waste, improve the efficiency of nutrient use in a way that we couldn’t do it here on earth, but then bring back those solutions, ”he said.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s landline this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. or on iview.