Plant mineral nutrition, gas exchange and photosynthesis in space: a review

​Successful growth and development of higher plants in space rely on adequate availability and uptake of water and nutrients, and efficient energy distribution through photosynthesis and gas exchange. In the present review, literature has been reviewed to assemble the relevant knowledge within space plant research for future planetary missions. Focus has been on fractional gravity, space radiation, magnetic fields and ultimately a combined effect of these factors on gas exchange, photosynthesis and transport of water and solutes. Reduced gravity prevents buoyancy driven thermal convection in the physical environment around the plant and alters transport and exchange of gases and liquids between the plant and its surroundings. In space experiments, indications of root zone hypoxia have frequently been reported, but studies on the influences of the space environment on plant nutrition and water transport are limited or inconclusive. Some studies indicate that uptake of potassium is elevated when plants are grown under microgravity conditions. Based on the current knowledge, gas exchange, metabolism and photosynthesis seem to work properly in space when plants are provided with a well stirred atmosphere and grown at moderate light levels. Effects of space radiation on plant metabolism, however, have not been studied so far in orbit. Ground experiments indicated that shielding from the Earth’s magnetic field alters plant gas exchange and metabolism, though more studies are required to understand the effects of magnetic fields on plant growth. It has been shown that plants can grow and reproduce in the space environment and adapt to space conditions. However, the influences of the space environment may result in a long term effect over multiple generations or have an impact on the plants’ role as food and part of a regenerative life support system. Suggestions for future plant biology research in space are discussed.