Melbourne joins new global research centre to investigate using plants for food and medicine in space

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Illustration of botanical lab on a space craft like the International Space Station

Finding novel ways to provide nutritious food and medicine from plants for the next generation of space explorers is the focus of a newly established ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (P4S).

P4S is a multi-member research centre that will  be led by the University of Adelaide with research collaboration from the universities of Melbourne, Western Australia, Flinders and Latrobe. It is intended findings from the Centre's research will help establish a long-term human presence in space, while also developing innovations on Earth.

P4S is a global, collaborative, transdisciplinary venture, partnering 15 academic institutions, five space agencies and enablers, five controlled environment agriculture companies, six education providers, and seven government and technology partners. Together, these institutions collectively harness a unique, fit-for-purpose critical mass. The University of Melbourne is one of five foundational Australian university partners.

The Centre is receiving approximately $90 million in funding for its initial seven years, with the Australian Government providing $35 million. Additional cash and support will be provided by the 38 P4S partners, including the University of Melbourne.

Melbourne Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor James McCluskey, says the central goal of P4S to create sustainable and resilient food security, aligns with a key goal of the University’s 2030 Strategy, Advancing Melbourne, to stimulate cross-disciplinary sustainable technologies for manufacturing and jobs.

“The Centre will complement and enhance the University’s vibrant space research ecosystem, including the Melbourne Space Laboratory. This concentration of space research at the University will provide significant opportunities for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge with P4S, to stimulate the astrosciences, industry and community engagement.”

Director of P4S, University of Adelaide Professor Matthew Gilliham, says the mission of P4S is “to re-imagine plant design and bioresource production through the lens of space, to enable off-Earth habitation and provide transformative solutions to improve on-Earth sustainability”.

University of Melbourne Professor of Chemical Engineering Sally Gras, from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, who is a Deputy Director and Products Program Lead for P4S, says the collaboration of those involved in P4S will create new technologies and capabilities in plant modification and biomanufacturing to translate research into a variety of applications.

“This will stimulate both new process and product development for domestic and international markets,” Professor Gras says.

“We will pursue innovation in plant processing and food structuring that, together with sensory and digestive assessments, will help develop a plant-based food industry for space and Earth.

“P4S will also drive breakthroughs in the production of biomolecules, and new biomolecule extraction technologies that will enable plant biofactories to produce pharmaceuticals, flavours and ingredients.”

University of Melbourne Chair of Botany Professor Michelle Watt says key innovations will include new plant efficiency solutions for challenging Earth environments that allow intensive, but sustainable production of plant-based foods that can reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“Our research will examine the role of plant roots in space and seek to improve key measures of plant efficiency, such as harvest index, allowing us to use all plant parts in resources we grow in space and here on Earth.”

Sensory scientist and Associate Professor Sigfredo Fuentes in Digital Agriculture and Food Sciences from the Faculty of Science at Melbourne says the team will address key challenges to "long-term off-Earth habitation including the development of nutritious and tasty food that can reduce resupply missions from Earth."

“We know food tastes different in space. We want to understand how astronauts can avoid menu fatigue, using the best plant-based foods that will stimulate tastebuds and satisfy sensory and nutritional needs.  We will develop and apply new sensory tools to help us understand how we perceive and interact with food.  We will also collaborate to understand the psychological requirements of humans in Space”.

Through P4S, Australia will provide an important contribution towards NASA’s Artemis Accords, which plans to put the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon by 2030, as well as develop the technologies required for humans to venture to Mars and return to Earth in the 2040s. The first 25-day phase of the mission launched on 16 November 2022.

Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo says "as humankind looks to return to the Moon, this time we do it with the view to establishing a sustainable presence that will allow us to explore further than ever before."

“There are many challenges associated with ensuring humans can live sustainably on the Moon. P4S is just one way in which Australia can contribute to making this happen as part of our commitment to the Artemis Accords.

“We're excited about the possibilities this brings and the opportunities it creates for our growing space sector.”