This mission led by University of Utah chemistry professor and project chief scientist Ming Hammond, assessed whether plants engineered to bio-manufacture specific proteins, in a process called synthetic biology, can do so in space.
Synthetic biology is a field that engineers biological systems. In this mission of Dec-2018, the team was looking at plants as potential bio-factories. Every organism naturally produces countless proteins as part of its biological function, so why not engineer a plant to produce, say, a needed medication or a polymer that could be useful in future long-term space exploration missions?
The team of collaborators spans two continents, with other partners at NASA Ames Research Center, the International Space University, and the University of Strasbourg. The team decided to engineer plants to change color as they produced the target protein, and monitor the progress with a camera. It’s an elegant and innovative solution, based on a previously published method, but adapted for the constraints of a cube in space.
The plant cube was designed with the forward vision of preparing for plant growth studies on the Moon, and this plant cube mission was also a technology development step towards that goal.
Photo credit: Mathew Crawley / University of Utah College of Science (The LED lights used to grow engineered plants in the plant cube, with a camera in the center relaying images of the plants to the Earth-based science team)