Astronauts May Get Their Wheaties
Does a sandwich on Mars taste different?
Previous research found that the weightless environment of spaceflight isn't a serious impediment to plant growth, though plants do often grow differently in microgravity — sometimes even taller, without gravity to pull them down.
"Plants, while they are in orbit, do exhibit changes in gene expression because that is a different environment," Ferl said.
But no one had yet tested whether any changes occurring in the plants during their spaceflight experience were passed on to future generations. This new study, published in the May 2009 edition of the journal Astrobiology, found this does not seem to be the case.
"We can still expect wheat plants to be wheat plants once they get to Mars," Ferl said.
That doesn't mean there aren't other challenges to transporting and growing plants on other planets.
For one, while plants are in space and on other planets, they could be exposed to strong radiation from the sun and cosmic rays. On Earth, we are blocked from the worst of this radiation by our protective atmosphere and magnetic field.
"I do think accumulated radiation damage over time could become an issue," Ferl said.
Dealing with radiation danger is a top priority for scientists planning future space exploration missions, because humans as well as plants are vulnerable to damage from energetic radiation. Engineers must design strong shielding for both space ships and planet habitats.
Another difficulty may be what kind of soil to grow the plants in.
While some necessary minerals may already exist on other planets that can be used for agriculture, other vital plant nutrients might have to be carried over from Earth. Because shipping heavy materials via rocket is expensive, as many materials as possible must be mined or created in the new environment. Mars soil is rich in sulfur, and it is unknown at this time if seeds from Earth would prosper or fail in the alien red soil. Plants on Earth also rely on a rich microbial diversity within the soil to carry out many functions. Mars, as far as we know, has no such organisms in its soil, so the plant-friendly soil microbes would probably need to be transported to Mars along with the seeds.