Prior to working on this project with the Canadian Space Agency during his studies at the ÉTS, Talal Abboud graduated from Cégep Ahuntsic in Electronics Technology.
In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon quickly realized that growing plants is critical in sustaining human life on another planet. With the arrival of astronauts, and in preparation for the establishment of potential settlers, plants will have to be produced in greenhouses. How can the health of plants be maintained in a hostile environment such as Mars when the closest humans are 225 million kilometers away? Scientists have studied this issue.
This article is part of a series on research and technological developments intended for the colonization of other planets.
Importance of plants in extraterrestrial colonization
The use of plants as an essential part of life support systems is at the foundation of long-term journeys, human habitat in space, and extraterrestrial colonization. The Canadian Space Agency was involved in examining the possibility of maintaining a human presence on the Moon and on Mars with the implementation of greenhouses. The advantage of these greenhouses is their ability to provide, in a closed loop system, a regenerative system of the three pillars of life support (Bamsey et al, 2009b.):
- Producing edible biomass;
- Managing atmosphere, principally CO2 and O2; and,
- Producing drinking water.
Therein lies the importance of understanding the metabolic issues that may affect plant growth, and their development in space.
Naturally Modified Genes
Spaceflight and extraterrestrial environments provide unique challenges for plant life. These challenges often require changes in gene configuration to adapt to and survive new conditions. Plants have a great advantage: they possess very sophisticated molecular detection systems that monitor their physiology and potential stress situations. As with all living organisms, plants continuously monitor their environment, and make adjustments to their physiology according to their environmental needs. Many adjustments are made within their genes. Changes in environmental conditions almost invariably lead to changes in the regulation of gene expression.
These adjustments provide the altered molecular state within the plant cell that allows the plant to survive, and even thrive, under the new environmental conditions. This environmental monitoring process was the subject of several studies in plant molecular biology (Manak et al., 2002; Paul et al., 2011). The inductibility of this process, caused by the environment, creates a switch which allows the researcher to enable or disable a specific stress gene (Manak et al. 2002). Marking these genes allows to monitor and evaluate their activities.
The Green Fluorescent Protein
Although several types of markers have proved valuable in a variety of applications, the green fluorescent protein (GFP) is used more and more often. The main advantage of the GFP is that the assay procedure does not affect plant growth and development, while other methods require the addition of a substrate and often sacrifice the plants (Paul et al., 2008). The Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) has a tremendous potential to become the ideal system of gene markers, particularly in orbital and extraterrestrial environments, where the return of samples is extremely difficult. To visualize the GFP, plants must be excited with a specific wavelength, and their emission must be detected at a wavelength which is distinct from the excitation light. The plant is not damaged during the process.
Many commercial systems are available for imaging and fluorescence detection. But most analytical procedures require laboratory testing, which cannot be applied to the initial biological experiments in high Earth orbit (Moon or Mars), where information must necessarily be transmitted to Earth by telemetry. The challenge is to develop a fully automated system to transmit the images needed for decision making to remotely control plant care.
Automated Imaging System
A fully automated imaging system for GFP-marked plants was installed in the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse (ACMG), at the Haughton Mars Project research station on Devon Island, Nunavut, in the Canadian High Arctic (Bamsey et al., 2009a).
During the design phase, several restrictions had to be addressed:
- The need for a low-energy power system, since it was to be deployed in a remote area with limited renewable energy sources. Furthermore, all the elements of the system were powered with only one 24V DC source.
- The need to integrate the imaging system into the existing greenhouse control, communication and data acquisition systems. The hardware and software of the imaging system had to be fully compatible with the greenhouse systems, which were designed more than ten years earlier, and which had undergone yearly upgrades.
- The need to design an excitation system producing wavelengths that did not overlap the fluorescence emission detected by the imaging system. The contamination of emission lights by the source of excitation can result in a great loss of information and a significant negative impact on the measurements.
Plants That Are Still Healthy, a Year Later
The imaging prototype was deployed and installed in the greenhouse, on Devon Island. It successfully operated autonomously for an entire year without any human presence, and was controlled by the satellite communication system of the greenhouse. The system measured the fluorescence of genetically modified plants with GFP fused to their revealing genes to simulate the monitoring of multiple sources of stress. The images were recorded locally in high resolution and sent back south by telemetry in low resolution, to a server located at the PolyLAB, at the Simon Fraser University.
In the spring, an anomaly was detected. The suspected failure mode was identified, and a simplified plan was developed and given to the scientists who first landed on the island. This anomaly served as a hands-on exercise to test a potential repair process on the International Space Station.
To Be Continued…
A further article describing the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse will follow shortly.
For more information, see the following research article:
Abboud, Talal; Bamsey, Matthew; Paul, Anna-Lisa; Graham, Thomas; Braham, Stephen; Noumeir, Rita; Berinstain, Alain; Ferl, Robert. 2013. Deployment of a Fully-Automated Green Fluorescent Protein Imaging System in a High Arctic Autonomous Greenhouse. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) –Sensors, 13 (3), pp. 3530-3548.
Or the following master’s thesis: Abboud, Talal (2013). Systèmes d’imagerie pour l’étude de la santé des plantes et la biologie spatiale. Mémoire de maîtrise électronique, Montréal, École de technologie supérieure. 90 p.
Talal Abboud holds a Bachelor and a Master of Engineering from the Department of Electrical Engineering of the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). He is currently an electronics designer at Kongsberg Automotive centre of excellence (CoE) department.
Matthew Bamsey is a Research Associate at Institute of Space Systems DLR in Germany. He is also part of the EDEN ISS project team. He worked on research projects at the University of Florida, University of Guelph and the CSA.
Anna-Lisa Paul is a Research Professor in Horticultural Sciences,University of Florida. Her research interests focus on the regulation of plant gene expression in response to abiotic stress and extreme environments.
Thomas Graham is a Research and Development Manager at the University of Guelph’s CESRF. His research interest focuses on improving volume utilization efficiency in bioregenerative life-support systems.
Stephen Braham is the Director of PolyLAB and of the Polymath Develoment Group, both at Simon Fraser University. His is also Vice President of the Mars Institute.
Rita Noumeir is a professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at ÉTS. Her research includes applying artificial intelligence methods to create decision support systems as well as video and image processing.
Program : Electrical Engineering
Alain Berinstain spent 17 years at the CSA where he was Director of Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy. Since 2013, with the creation of his own company, Psyence, he now devotes himself to the communication of science and technology.