Seeds in Space: What molecules are lost in a space vacuum?

Theme: Biodiversity & Ecology

Primary Supervisor:

Hugh Pritchard

Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology, KEW

Secondary Supervisor:

Dhiren Kataria

Department of Space & Climate Physics, Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), UCL

Project Description:

Dry seeds from many plant species can survive extreme environmental conditions, including those found in outer space, such as vacuum, anoxia, temperature fluctuations and exposure to full-spectrum ultraviolet light. Currently it is not known which molecules, and at what rate, will be released from different seeds under space vacuum. The proposed project is in preparation for a planned experiment on the International Space Station (ISS), in which seeds from 24 species will be exposed to the extreme conditions of space outside of the ISS for over a year. During this period, the effects of the exposure on the seeds will be monitored in-situ with a mass spectrometer for the first time, primarily through analysis of gases and biological molecules released from the seeds. The project will focus on (i) improving the current understanding of released volatiles and (ii) increasing the technology readiness level of the mass spectrometer subsystems. Seeds of different morphology and composition will be studied on the ground using a series of vacuum and mass spectrometry systems of increasing complexity. The project uniquely combines seed science and space instrumentation development with researchers from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (Hugh Pritchard, Louise Colville and Anne Visscher) and MSSL at UCL (Dhiren Kataria) working together to supervise the project. This PhD proposal is part of a long-term Kew-UCL research project studying the effects of space exposure on seeds from a range of species representing wide taxonomic diversity and a variety of plant uses, life forms, habitats, climatic zones and seed morphology.

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will boost our capability to detect and study biological compounds in vacuum and in space as well as expand the knowledge base on astrobiology and seed survivability in extreme environments. This will facilitate informed decision making for human space exploration and life support systems on other planets.

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