Astronauts might soon grow SPACE tomatoes

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Grant to UC Riverside could help put tiny tomato plants on the International Space Station

Tiny tomato plants developed at the University of California, Riverside, could one day feed astronauts on the International Space Station. The plants have minimal leaves and stems but still produce a normal amount of fruit, making them a potentially productive crop for cultivation anywhere with limited soil and natural resources. 

Now, with a grant from the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health, UCR researchers will tweak the tomatoes to make them also uniquely suited to growing in space. Dubbed Small Plants for spACe Expeditions, or SPACE, plants by the researchers, the technology could be applied to other plants to develop a suite of crops for agriculture on the International Space Station and future space colonies.

Robert Jinkerson, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering and Martha Orozco-Cárdenas, director of the Plant Transformation Research Center in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, will use the two-year $800,000 grant to continue to reduce the size of the miniature plants, engineer them for enhanced photosynthesis, grow them in a container that mimics conditions on the International Space Station, analyze the fruit’s nutritional content, and conduct taste tests.

Orozco-Cárdenas originally used CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to shrink the size of ordinary tomato plants and reduce the ratio of leaves and stems to fruit.