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Growing fruit and veg for Mars
Dr Tracey Larkin, Killaloe; Dr Peter Downey and Ms Michelle Mc Keon Bennett, Bunratty pictured in an environmental growth chamber, while working on of the Eden -ISS project. Photograph by John Kelly

Growing fruit and veg for Mars

PLANTS cultivated by a local biochemist and her team at the LIT CELLS research group look set for life on Mars, after a period in Antartica.

The plants are scheduled to arrive in Antartica in the coming weeks for tests in extreme temperatures that replicate those of the red planet.

A state-of-the-art plant cultivation facility, known as the EDEN-ISS Future Exploration Greenhouse (FEG) – which was also designed and built by the Limerick scientists and their EDEN-ISS partners – will house the growing plants and will be located beside Neumayer-Station III.

Dr Tracey Larkin is one of the research scientists working as part of the EDEN-ISS consortium, which has been tasked with developing the technologies that will allow for sustainable food production facilities on the moon and on Mars.

A native of Mill Road, Corbally, Dr Larkin moved to Ballina, Killaloe, about 16 years ago.
The BSc PhD biochemistry graduate from NUI Galway has completed a post-doctorate with the Life Science Department of the University of Limerick in the area of food biochemistry and modified atmosphere packaging.

Dr Larkin is also a member of the LIT research team and principal investigator of the FoodDS@LIT research group, with responsibility for the organoleptic/sensory analysis of the food grown, as part of the EDEN-ISS projects.

LIT is part of the EDEN-ISS consortium, whose mission is to develop safe food production for on-board the International Space Station and for future space exploration.

The consortium is comprised of 14 leading European, Canadian and US universities, research institutes, corporations and SMEs and is funded under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Funding Programme.

These experts in human space flight and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), led by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, have been developing a self-sustaining greenhouse for use by astronauts to cultivate their own fresh fruits and vegetables beyond terrestrial grounds.

Dr Larkin told The Clare Champion that the team has been growing fresh fruit and vegetables in a specially-designed growth chamber in a closed system, which is completely different to the traditional, conventional method of growing food.

She said she has been involved with the sensory analysis and scientific testing of this food and has travelled to Germany to train others on how to conduct these tests for the project.

She said space travellers who eat fresh fruit and vegetables will enjoy psychological benefits, as well as optimum nutrition.

If further tests are completed by next June, she said that fresh fruit and vegetables could be used by space travellers sooner rather than later.

On October 31, 2017, the FEG left Germany for its two-month journey to the Antarctic.

A key priority for the project will be to test the long-duration operational efficiency and cultivation output of the facility in an extreme environment, analogous to that found on our planet’s celestial neighbours.

More than 15 different crop species were selected for the experiment campaign in Antarctica, including three tall growing plants – tomato, pepper and cucumber; three different types of lettuce – two green, one red leaf; radish; spinach; a variety of herbs (basil, chives, parsley, mint and coriander) and strawberries.

Seeds from a number of add-on crops – crops that are not part of the current production plan – were also taken to Antarctica, such as cabbage, cauliflower and red beet.

Michelle McKeon Bennett is head of the Department of Applied Science at LIT, founder of the CELLS research sroup and principal investigator of the LIT work packages of the four-year EDEN ISS project, which extends from March 2015 to December 2018.

Ms Bennett explained that the team were tasked with ensuring that the plants grow and thrive in space, and in other environments with limited resources.

“We have also worked to ensure that the food produced in the EDEN-ISS project is of high organoleptic and nutritional quality and is safe to consume by explorers, astronauts and, eventually, space colonists.”

“The cultivation system used for these plants is unlike any other systems used today in standard greenhouse horticulture, as all resources needed to grow the plants must be recycled from within the facility itself, including air, nutrients, water and energy.

“It has also been our responsibility to test these plants to ensure that they have a nutritional value, are palatable and of course are not producing any toxins,” Ms Bennett concluded.

By Dan Danaher

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