Millions of twinkling stars peppered the night canvas above Elison Blancaflor as he squinted at the once-lopsided pineapple stem. Somehow the plant had corrected itself, fascinating Blancaflor, who worked as a pineapple field supervisor in the Philippines. He shifted his gaze up while he mused, “How did the plant know how to correct its growth so it could stand back up?” The stars flickered as though winking to assure the future scientist that he would one day find the answer.
He’s expanding on the same question 30 years later. Blancaflor studies root growth as a Noble Research Institute principal investigator and professor. He has made a remarkable number of breakthroughs in his career and continues to patiently weave discoveries into a grander tapestry of plant knowledge. His masterpiece will create more resilient crops not just on this planet but beyond.
Blancaflor has devoted more than a decade to understanding how plant roots grow down toward the soil, a process called gravitropism. It’s critical work because gravity not only anchors plants but also guides root systems to nutrients and water and shoots toward light for photosynthesis — all of which is essential for agriculture.
His explorations into gravity’s impact on plant growth long ago surpassed the bounds of what is possible on Earth. It’s challenging to understand or improve plants’ response to gravity if it’s always present.
But the stars aligned for Blancaflor to send seedlings soaring into space. Blancaflor’s work has implications for NASA’s space colonization ambitions because astronauts will depend on plants when missions launch them millions of miles away from the nearest grocery store.
Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D., (right) and postdoctoral fellow Ana Paez-Garcia, Ph.D., dig up roots from a Noble Research Institute farm field for studies related to understanding how root systems develop.
Encountering Different Environments
NASA has partnered with Blancaflor for 11 years. Together, this dynamic duo has grown plants in space twice. Blancaflor discovered that without the force of gravity to guide root systems and shoots, plants craft ways to grow in an environment they’ve never before encountered. He’s recently received two additional NASA grants to replicate his interstellar discoveries with technology on Earth.
“During spaceflight we found that a number of plant processes were altered by microgravity,” Blancaflor says. “They responded to the new environment by changing the expression of genes related to building the cell wall, a component of the plant that keeps it upright and mechanically strong. Imitating reduced-gravity conditions on Earth is a more convenient and cheaper way to validate genes that control plant growth in space so that we can design more spaceflight resilient plants.”
Harsh environments may no longer be such a significant adversary to agriculture. Blancaflor’s discoveries could bring up a generation of plants tailor-made to thrive in extreme environmental conditions of space. If plants can be engineered to survive in space, then they should flourish on Earth, which could contribute to world food security.
Bringing Space to Earth
Blancaflor’s surroundings have advanced along with his questions. Pineapple rows have given way to shelves bedecked with lab equipment in his state-of-the-art laboratory at the Noble Research Institute. Constellations of neatly labeled jars with colorful tops adorn workstations. Family photos and children’s drawings garnish the industrial countertops. Machinery hums rhythmically. Pipettes drip fluid from one tiny tube to another.
One primitive object rests inconspicuously among the sophisticated technology. The wooden open rectangle resembles a B-grade middle school science project. This unassuming gadget, called a clinostat, functions as a microgravity simulator. Plants slide into a cylinder suspended above the rectangle. The plants rotate hypnotically as the instrument randomizes gravitational direction. NASA used the Noble-built clinostat to design some of the equipment at the Kennedy Space Center Microgravity Simulation Support Facility, or MSSF, where Blancaflor will move his experiment from DIY to high-tech.
Blancaflor will be a nomad scientist for the next three years as he routinely journeys the 1,286-mile pilgrimage from the Noble Research Institute to the Kennedy Space Center. While flames leap from rocket boosters to blast them out of atmosphere, Blancaflor and his research team will launch their own celestial mission. Behind pressurized doors, they will conduct some of the most painstaking work critical to the future success of space exploration.
“In space, astronauts have more things to do than take care of plants,” Blancaflor says. “With the simulator, we can be more hands-on with the plants and watch them more closely.”
True microgravity is impossible to mimic on Earth. Rather than eliminate gravity, the MSSF neutralizes its influence with a counterforce. This exposes plants to near weightlessness without the expense of space travel. Blancaflor is among the first wave of scientists to conduct experiments at the MSSF.
“... I dreamed of having greenhouses in space or on Mars. Maybe the research we’re doing can help design the ideal space plant.”
— Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D.
For the Noble Research Institute, this experiment further fulfills its charge to deliver solutions to great agricultural challenges.
“The research we are doing is only a small but a significant part of the great challenges the Noble Research Institute is working to overcome,” Blancaflor says. “We feel that learning about how plants put down roots on Earth and in space will address great agricultural challenges by positively impacting soil health and improving the crop’s efficiency in acquiring resources it needs to grow.”
Blancaflor’s work also advances NASA’s mission to pioneer the future in space exploration. His results could mean that living away from Earth isn’t such a far-off dream. Science fiction is barely ahead of space exploration. If astronauts are going to embark on long-duration space missions, they’re going to need some veggies.
“When I watched the film The Martian, I dreamed about having greenhouses in space or on Mars,” Blancaflor says. “Maybe the research we’re doing can help design the ideal space plant. I don’t even know if I’ll be around to see that.”
Blancaflor’s curiosity burns as brightly as the stars glittering in their heavenly finery over the pineapple fields. When the International Space Station glides above him, he intentionally scours the sky. If he doesn’t spot the vessel, he gazes at the stars while they flicker like pinpricks on a black curtain.
They are still winking.