Could “space wheat” save fresh water?

USU-Apogee wheat growing on the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

USU-Apogee wheat growing on the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

Bruce Bugbee grows crops designed for life in outer space. The Utah State University plant scientist investigates how wheat, peas, rice and other edible crops could grow under less-than-optimal conditions — with little room, minimal fresh water and beneath artificial light. At TEDxUSU, he explains how these plants might help us conserve drinkable water here on Earth, where only 2.5% of our water is fresh.

“Wheat and rice are the biggest crops for direct human consumption on the planet,” Bugbee says. “My colleagues and I hybridized tall high-yielding wheat with very short wheat to get a short, high-yielding wheat [because] we wanted to develop a life-support system for space.” What they developed — dubbed USU-Apogee wheat — ended up thriving on the International Space Station.

USU-Apogee ready for harvest on the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

USU-Apogee ready for harvest on the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

The wheat is grown hydroponically in a substance called rockwool – an alternative to soil made from basaltic rock. The process often takes less water than traditional field farming because, as Bugee explains, “there’s no evaporation from the soil’s surface; there’s no leaks; all the water goes through the plant. The space wheat also grows twice as fast as regular wheat, as it is designed for rapid yield, he says.

Bruce Bugbee shows off the roots of USU-Apogee wheat onstage at TEDxUSU (Photo: TEDxUSU)

Bruce Bugbee shows off the roots of USU-Apogee wheat onstage at TEDxUSU (Photo: TEDxUSU)

Even with all these improvements to the wheat’s efficiency, the plant still takes a lot of water to grow, Bugbee says. “Every square millimeter of the surface of these [wheat] plants is covered with tiny pores called stomata. [When] stomata open to let carbon dioxide in, they automatically lose water vapor. Saving water by closing the stomata is a lot like asking people to save water by stopping breathing. We can’t do it.”

So how to save water in agriculture? Look for more ways to grow plants efficiently, and limit the land area used to grow them, Bugbee says.

To learn more, watch Bugbee’s whole talk below:

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