Farming In Space Starts With Mycorrhiza

To live in space, we need to raise our own food. And space farming suffers from a lot of problems, the studies of Martian Potato Farming showing that Martian-Grown Food Might Be Fine inspired by Andy Weir's book The Martian notwithstanding.

... the soils on the Moon and on other planets are surely lower in nutrients compared to our agricultural land. The alternative – transporting nutrient-rich soil and fertilizers up into space – comes with a high economic and ecological cost.

When looking for a possible solution, the research group working with Lorenzo Borghi of the University of Zurich and Marcel Egli of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts concentrated on the process of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic association between fungi and plant roots. In this symbiosis, the fungal hyphae supply the plant roots with additional water, nitrogen, phosphates and trace elements from the ground. In return they get access to sugar and fat produced by the plant. This symbiosis is stimulated by hormones of the strigolactone family, which most plants secrete into the soil around their roots. The process of mycorrhization can greatly increase plant growth and thereby substantially improve crop yields – especially in soil that is low in nutrients.

(Via Plant hormone makes space farming a possibility)

I seem to recall that Robert Heinlein wrote about plants that could survive on the surface of planets like Mars, for example, the man-sized desert cabbage from his 1949 juvenile novel Red Planet:

The Sun was slipping behind a distant dune; the sunset wind whipped coldly at them. The far edges of the plant lifted and began to curl toward them... The inner leaves were beginning to curl faster than the outer leaves. Such a leaf, four feet wide at its widest and at least ten feet long, raised up in back of Jim and curved in until it touched his shoulder...

With elbows and knees and hands the two managed to occupy a roughly spherical space about five feet across and a little less than that high. The leaves closed down on them, seemed to feel them out, then settled firmly against them... Soon the last open space was covered and they were in total darkness.

In his 1951 story Asteroid of Fear, Golden Age great Raymond Z. Gallun describes a greenhouse on an asteroid:

In their great plastic greenhouse, supported like a colossal bubble by the humid, artificially-warmed air inside it, long troughs were filled with pebbles and hydroponic solution. And therein tomatoes were planted, and lettuce, radishes, corn, onions, melons—just about everything in the vegetable line... Under ideal conditions, the inside of the great bubble was soon a mass of growing things. Rose had planted flowers—to be admired, and to help out the hive of bees, which were essential to some of the other plants, as well. Nor was the flora limited to the Earthly. Some seeds or spores had survived, here, from the mother world of the asteroids...

Sometimes John Endlich was misled. Sometimes, listening to familiar sounds, and smelling familiar odors, toward the latter part of his reprieve, he almost imagined that he'd accomplished his basic desires here on Vesta—when he had always failed on Earth.

There was the smell of warm soil, flowers, greenery. He heard irrigation water trickling. The sweetcorn rustled in the wind of fans he'd set up to circulate the air. Bees buzzed. Chickens, approaching adolescence, peeped contentedly as they dusted themselves and stretched luxuriously in the shadows of the cornfield.

For John Endlich it was all like the echo of a somnolent summer of his boyhood. There was peace in it: it was like a yearning fulfilled. An end of wanderlust for him, here on Vesta. In contrast to the airless desolation outside, the interior of this five-acre greenhouse was the one most desirable place to be.

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