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Le Vu Anh Phuong - CY1500 Research Proposal

Title of Project:

Investigation of the impacts of Mars weak magnetic field on the

photosynthesis of soybean


Le Vu Anh Phuong


School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering





Le Vu Anh Phuong - CY1500 Research Proposal

1. Description
Space colonisation has become an inspiration for human spirit and ingenuity. One of the most immediate
and realistic objective is to build a habitat on Mars the closest planet to Earth. However long travel
distances pose a great financial cost on each journey given the current state of space technology. Thus there
is the need to establish Mars colony maintained by bioregenerative life support systems (BLSS), which use
various living organisms to produce food and recycle wastes, water and air to minimise transportation costs.
Among these organisms, soybean has been identified to be one of the key vegetation because of its
excellent nutritional values and ease of cultivation. However extraterrestrial farming conditions, characterized
by microgravity, weak magnetic field (WMF) and cosmic radiation, pose challenges in growing and
incorporating soybean into astronauts diet. WMF in particular in this proposal is the central focus. Various
adverse effects of WMF on plants have been found. However the impact of WMF on photosynthesis, a main
metabolic process, together with its impact on soybean, has received little attention. Studying of the effects
WMF has on soybean photosynthesis will enable future research to create an optimal cultivating environment
and cultivars in order to maximize food yield and oxygen recycling. By doing so, great costs can be saved
from the transportation fee, and the main problem of sustainable food and oxygen production can be
2. Literature review
Mars colonisation will involve a large number of people permanently or over a long period of time, with a
great distance from Earth. This situation necessarily requires a bioregenerative life support systems (BLSS)
to replace the current approach of fixed initial resources and resupplying [1]. BLSS will be able to provide
sufficient nutrition and help recycle waste, air and water [2]. The constraints of space, resources and
technology lead to limited choices of species to be included in these systems especially at the initial stage of
colonisation. Among them, soybean has been identified to be a suitable component of the BLSS by the
European Space Agency for their Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative programme (ESA
MELiSSA) due to its nutritional values, short cultivation cycle, high adaptability to the expected cultivation
environment, high yield and good resistance to diseases[2]. Soybeans high protein and mineral contents
provide astronauts with basic nutritional needs and supplement their special requirement such as to help
prevent bone loss [3]. However, Marss WMF has posed a threat to the success of the BLSS project. Mars
has no geomagnetic field as Earth. Martial magnetic field is local and weak, ranging from zero to 1.5 nT in
most of the surface area, 3000 times weaker than that on Earths surface [4]. Research studies have
discovered a number of effects WMF has on plants, such as sugar beets, pea, flax and lentil. The general
conclusion is that WMF inhibits, and in some cases stimulates, various stages of plant development and
metabolic processes [5]. Moreover Belyavskaya (2004) indicated that the impact of WMF on photosynthesis
has not been studied in details, despite its integral role as the basis of life support in space via recycling
oxygen through transpiration and creating biomass [6]. Thus the results from this study will facilitate the
construction of the BLSS, solve the problem of sustainable food supplies and minimize the need of
resupplying. The cost saving from this success would amount to billions of dollars because each resupplying
mission average cost, excluding the high costs of the first trip, is estimated to be $5.3 billion for ESA and $7
billion for NASA [7].
3. Methodology
Overall approach can be summarise as followed: the preparation steps involve the simulation of the
cultivation environment conditions on Mars (medium and ambient parameters) and the selection of the most
suitable soybean cultivars for these conditions. Afterwards, soybean photosynthetic activities will be
measured, followed by the assessment of the overall biomass productivity. These data will be compared
against that from soybean grown in Earth-like environment.
3.1 Creating WMF on Earth by using magnetically shielded rooms (MSR)
The first objective is to mimic the weak magnetic environment of Mars in a lab by shielding away Earths own
magnetic field. There are two main methods of magnetic shielding: passive shielding using soft

Le Vu Anh Phuong - CY1500 Research Proposal

ferromagnetic materials, conducting materials and superconducting materials, and active compensation
shielding. The principle of the first method is to create an eddy current on the conducting materials in order to
form an opposing magnetic field and neutralize the external field. In the second method, coils with suitable
currents and positions are installed to create an opposing magnetic field and nullifies the external field.
Additionally, radio frequency (RF) shielding is also used to block interference from radio signals produced
from nearby electrical devices. The best performing MSR ever built is located on the site of the PhysikalischTechnische Bundesanstalt (PTB) Institute, Berlin. The facility combines active shielding, passive shielding
and RF shielding for maximum efficiency [8]. The inner dimension of this cube-shaped MSR is 2.5 m, able to
reduce Earth magnetic field by the factor of at least 10,000 (for low frequency magnetic noise) and up to 1
million, [9] which is well above the minimum required performance of 3,000 to simulate WMF on Mars. This
facility may be insufficient in size for a big population of soybean to be cultivated but its performance is
crucial to simulate the effectively zero field strength of many locations on Mars.
3.2 Simulation of other ambient conditions
The second task is to optimise and control other growing conditions. Firstly, duration and methods of lighting
in BLSS have been studied with a more common duration of 12/12 hours of light/dark cycle [10]. Hence for
the day length of 24h 40m in Mars, the duration of 12h 20min of light/dark will be applied. Other ambient
conditions will be as followed, according to the published literature [11]: minimum light intensity of 350 mol
m-2 s-1 at the canopy level, temperature at 26/20 oC (light/dark) and relative humidity (RH) will be maintained
within the optimal range of 6575%. Ambient CO2 will be maintained (400440 ppm during the day).
3.3 Cultivars and cultivation method selection
The next task is to select the best performing soybean cultivars, together with the medium to grow them.
a. Theoretical selection for hydroponic trials
Within the ESA-MELiSSA programme, De Micco et al., (2012) developed a theoretical procedure to select
the most suitable cultivars of soybean, based on both nutritional values and technical constraints of the
BLSS. The procedure includes (i) data collection and preliminary assesment to narrow down to 93 cultivars,
and (ii) the ranking of these cultivars based on an algorithm that relate the relative importance of these data
for BLSS conditions. The study identified four best-performing cultivars for trials under soiless cultivation,
Pr91m10, Regir, Atlantic and Cresir, all of which will be used in this project.
b. Cultivation medium
Due to space constraints and the unavailability of suitable soil on Mars, BLSS will necessarily be developed
on a closed, controlled, soilless basis. The two most popular methods are hydroponic and aeroponic
techniques, with re-circulated nutrient solution. In hydroponic farming, plant roots are immersed into a
nutrient liquid medium while aeroponic cultivation exposes plant roots to fine drops of nutrients (midst or
aerosol). Studies show that aeroponic method results in better growth but with higher costs of infrastructure,
technology, surveillance and control [12]. It is therefore more suitable to use hydroponic method. In particular
the re-circulating nutrient film technique (NFT) will be used due to its ability to guarantee sufficient water and
nutrient supplies to plant roots [10]. Soybean will be grown in slightly elevated trays with nutrient solution
tanks and circulation pumps. Nutrient solution will be circulated back to the tanks by gravity dependent flow,
which should work under fractional gravity on Mars. Details of the apparatus can be found in the literature
[13]. The optimized nutrient solution for soybean is a standard half-strength Hoagland solution at the
following concentrations: 7.5 mM N, 3.0 mM K, 0.5 mM P, 2.5 mM Ca, 1.0 mM Mg, 1.0 mM S, 60 M Fe, 7.4
M Mn, 0.96 M Zn, 1.04 M Cu, 7.13 M B and 0.01 M Mo [14].
4. Data collection
All data in the MSR will be compared against that from the control environment using two tailed t-test.
3.4 Selection for uniformity

Le Vu Anh Phuong - CY1500 Research Proposal

To ensure that the impacts of the WMF are measured accurately, all plants going into the tests must be
selected to have similar physical conditions. A total of 500 seeds/cultivar (cv) will be sown in the control
environment. Row distance: 20 cm, plant to plant distance of 5 cm. For plants to have significant leaf area for
more effective measurement of photosynthesis, only after 25 days after sowing (DAS) will plants with an
estimated height of 201 cm (350 plants/cv) be collected. Among them, 300 will be divided into 6 sections of
50 plants and are subjected to 6 different WMF strength environments: 2.5nT to 15nT with 2.5nT increment.
The remaining 50 will continue to grow in the control environment. All other ambient parameters will be kept
constant across all sections.
3.5 Measuring the activity of photosynthesis
There are three major parameters of measuring photosynthetic activity: gas exchange measurement
expressed in the Net Photosynthetic Rate (PN) (net CO2 uptake from photosynthesis and respiration),
photosynthetic pigments content and level of chlorophyll (Chl) fluorescence [15]. Measurements will be taken
from the 26th DAS at every 5 days interval for 30 days, 10 minutes after all ambient condition parameters are
stabilized inside the MSR and the control chamber. PN, minimum Chl fluorescence (F0) and the maximum Chl
fluorescence (Fm) will be measured in situ. The content of Chls a and b will be determined via leaf disc
extraction [16]. After about the 60th DAS, soybean will start forming seeds until 90th DAS when they are ready
for harvesting. During this period, high leaf falling will occur [11].
3.6 Measuring plant growth and biomass production
Plant growth will be measured from the 26th DAS, every 5 days via non-destructive measurements of plant
height and leaf area (LA). LA will be calculated from the Wiersma and Bailey (1957) formula, modified for
soybean leaf type and shape. From about 90th DAS, soybean will be harvested every 5 days for 30 days, on
6 plants per cv. Soybean yield will be measured in terms of mass of seeds per plant and number of seeds
per pod per plant. Edible mass (seeds) and non-edible mass (the other parts of plant) will be compared
across cv and WMF sections, and against the control environment, on both fresh weight (FW) and dry weight
(DW) basis.
5. Resource requirement
The most important facility is the MSR, which is only available in some laboratories in the world, with the one
in Berlin having the best shielding performance. Another cultivation house with controlled environment will be
needed. These two must have the following control systems: an infrared analyzer and computerized CO 2
circulator to monitor the level of CO2, a fog system to control humidity, a temperature sensor system to
control temperature, light sensor and LEDs to control light intensity, and a water nutrient circulation system
described previously. To measure both PN and fluorescence levels, portable iFN integrated fluorometers,
combined gas exchange and chlorophyll fluorescence measuring apparatus (ADC BioScientific Ltd.,
Hoddesdon, Great Britain) will be needed.
6. Gantt chart
Figure 1 below shows the proposed timeline of the project.

Le Vu Anh Phuong - CY1500 Research Proposal







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