Enjoy Thanksgiving in space with sweet potatoes

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 - 12:17

Washington: Purdue University scientists have developed methods for growing sweet potatoes that reduce the required growing space while not decreasing the amount of food that each plant produces, suggesting that the crop could be grown in space.

This means future astronauts spending Thanksgiving in space may not have to forgo fresh sweet potatoes, one of the most traditional parts of the day’s feast.

Sweet potato plants have main vines with many shoots that branch out to the sides. Mitchell said it was common for one plant to cover the entire surface of a 15-by-5-foot greenhouse bench.

“Sweet potato is like an invasive plant. It will take over everything,” said Cary Mitchell, a Purdue University professor of horticulture, who studies the selection of crops that could be grown in space.

“That’s not acceptable if you’re going to grow it in space,” he added.

Knowing they needed to contain the plant’s horizontal spread, Mitchell and Massa decided to force it to grow vertically.

Using cones or cylindrically shaped wire cages, they trained plants’ main vines to wrap around the structures while removing the space-consuming side shoots.

“It turns out the vines are not really picky about what you do with them. As long as you leave the main shoot tip alone, you can remove the side shoots and trim them away without any yield loss,” Massa said.

On Earth, scientists might want to find ways to get crops to take up less area, focusing on only two dimensions. A tall, skinny corn stalk, for instance, takes up little space in a farm field.

In space, however, that third dimension - height - is important because plants may need to be stacked to use all available space. Using a cone or cylinder is what might make sweet potato a viable space crop.

Their findings were published in the journal Advances in Space Research.


First Published: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 - 11:33
comments powered by Disqus