Space-Age Wheat

By Eve Pranis

How does a scientist find a food plant that can thrive on space farms where the artificial sun always shines, carbon dioxide levels are high, and space is tight? Through careful work and sheer persistence.

A researcher at Utah State University, challenged by the idea of creating a type of wheat that would produce well in space, spent more than a decade repeatedly growing and cross-pollinating wild and domesticated wheat plants. His reward was publicly unveiled this spring: Apogee wheat -- the first food designed to be grown in space. It's short and compact, loves warmth and light, produces seed heads in no time flat, and thrives on the carbon dioxide that builds up quickly in space vehicles.

Space Wheat Seeds for Classrooms

Since visions of space so readily capture students' imaginations, and wheat plants are so easy to grow, the USU scientists have offered to supply interested readers with Apogee wheat seeds to inspire student investigations. After reviewing the characteristics and preferences of this "human-designed" plant, consider the possibilities for classroom investigations. [Check with them for update on offer]

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Compare the growth of Apogee with another variety of wheat, indoors or out. Observe growth rates, development of seed heads, root growth, leaf size, and so on. You might want to do this without revealing which is which type, then have students determine which they think would grow best in space and why. (You'll find normal "earthly" wheat at stores that sell farm and garden seeds or health food.)
  • Discover how different levels of carbon dioxide affect the growth of Apogee and/or invent ways to increase the carbon dioxide that plants receive. (Hint: Consider ways of using human breath or dry ice!)
  • Explore how different light or heat levels affect the space wheat's growth. Alternatively, share information on the space wheat's preferred growing conditions, then challenge students to design growing setups that will produce seed heads in the shortest length of time.
  • Try growing the wheat hydroponically, then compare it with that grown in a soilless mix.
  • Challenge your students to research what Apogee means, then infer why it was the name given to this new wheat.
  • Visit the Apogee web page for more information to inspire investigations and a glimpse into how scientists think and work.

Your classroom scientists will surely come up with questions and ideas for experiments we haven't even considered. Please be sure to share your experiences with us so we can report on them in a future issue.

Space Wheat: The Facts

  • Apogee is only 18 inches tall when mature, while normal wheats can grow to 3 feet or more.
  • Its leaves are narrower than those on other varieties. (Researchers say that larger leaves on normal wheat make shade that inhibits weed growth; but with no weeds in space, why bother?)
  • Because it's such a fast grower, Apogee does best with intense, 24-hour light, warm temperatures (72 degrees F), and regular fertilizing.
  • It will grow well in a soilless mix or hydroponically.
  • It thrives under high levels of carbon dioxide, which may be ten times as high in an enclosed space station as on Earth. (Plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and in so doing, "cleanse" the air for animals.)
  • Seed heads should form in about four to six weeks under lights in a classroom.

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