Astrobotany, the study of plants in space, dares to ask whether Earth’s fields and forests could one day thrive on other worlds. In this January semester course taught by 2016 biology instructor Reina Nielsen, students have a unique opportunity to scientifically explore possibilities pulled straight from science fiction.
By studying how plants react in space environments, the goal of astrobotany is to supplement and eventually supply astronauts’ diets from plants grown on the International Space Station and even on other planets.
“We’re basically testing how plants respond to really extreme conditions, and as Earth continues to experience climate change, those extreme conditions could be comparable to anything we might see on Earth,” Nielsen said. “So heat stress, potentially water stress, any of these major stressors that we’re testing in space may be applicable here on Earth.”
Although students won’t actually study plants in space, they will complete a few hands-on labs, testing how gravity and light sources from Earth affect plant growth, as well as a science fiction-inspired lab . In addition, they discover the advances currently being made in astrobotany, such as the red peppers recently grown on the International Space Station.
In an experience inspired by The Martian by Andy Weir, students grow plants in a replica of Martian soil. In the book, the main character grows potatoes in Martian soil with added human waste, allowing him to survive on Mars. In a less life or death situation, the Astrobotany class will add Gustavus compost to the replica soil to see if they can grow plants.
“I’ve always loved science fiction, including those stories of trying to survive on a spacecraft on Mars. I studied plants in college, and I really enjoyed looking at plants at their extremes, so I thought it was a great mesh of my two interests,” Nielsen said.
As an introductory level class, business, art, and biology majors learn a broad overview of botany. “It’s a pretty niche topic, but I’m super excited to have the opportunity to learn about it,” said Taisha Linder ’25, a potential biology major. “I also love that it combines my interests in plants and space.”
The January term of Gustavus is focused on innovation and the search for interdisciplinary connections, as well as the expansion of student and faculty interests. “I hope the students take away a fascination with plants,” Nielsen said, “but also take away this curiosity of what may be possible, where can science take us.”
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