By Erica Tennenhouse

Astronauts planning to explore the Red Planet will be hard-pressed to find gourmet Martian restaurants during their mission, or even decent take-out. But current research being conducted at the University of Guelph assures that there will be food.


University of Guelph undergrad Swati Saxeena working at one of nine single-plant hypobaric plant growth chambers.

Mike Dixon, a Professor and Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) at the University of Guelph, has been hard at work designing self-contained greenhouses for use in space exploration.The aim of these greenhouses is that they will one day be able to sustain life on space missions lasting longer than 15 years. Current space vehicles are limited in the amount of food, air, and water they are able to carry. For longer space missions,Dixon is developing a renewable life-support system based on plants and microorganisms, which will provide oxygen and water, remove pollution, and recycle waste. The greenhouses will also provide food—soybeans, wheat, rice, carrots, lettuce and corn are a few items on the all-vegetarian menu that will be available for astronauts traveling to the moon or Mars.

Five large greenhouses, or hypobaric (low-pressure) chambers have been built,weighing around eight tons each, along with nine smaller chambers. The large walk-in chambers contain relatively small growing areas (1.5 square metres).They use 6,000 watts of light energy, and temperature, humidity, and atmospheric components (carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen) are under very precise control. Dixon emphasizes that absolutely everything— liquids, solids and gases—is recycled continuously.This recycling is the key to the potential use of these greenhouses on space missions. As Dixon explains, “I can’t throw anything away when I go to the moon—I must recycle everything.There’s no such thing as garbage when you get off this planet.”

Through the development of these chambers, Dixon’s research group has developed a means of growing food and maintaining a clean and useful atmosphere in a controlled environment, anywhere. There is currently a test greenhouse on Devon Island in the Arctic. Future lunar missions will provide further opportunity to test these chambers on the moon before they are used for a Mars mission.

Dixon’s research requires a large infrastructure, which the University of Guelph provides. The CESRF is the main facility, which houses the chambers. This 850 square-metre building is suitable for measuring plant growth, gas exchange, volatile organic compounds, and nutrient remediation in controlled environments. The CESRF is surrounded by a perimeter of support labs including analytical chemistry,microbiology, and sensor technology and computers.

A very highly specialized group of between 60 and 70 researchers forms the space exploration community that has grown up around the facility. “We now form the core of technical expertise that is Canada’s main contribution to life support,” says Dixon. His own research team consists of 25 graduate students, postdoctoral students, undergraduate interns and technicians. “That’s really the product we turn out—the people. These are highly specialized and very well-trained people who routinely consider things like going off to the moon and growing wheat as a relatively casual undertaking.”


University of Guelph PhD candidate Renee Cloutier.

The majority of the technology developed by Dixon’s lab for space is transferable to terrestrial applications. Although Dixon originally began developing these greenhouses with space exploration in mind, in the early 90s his research caught the eye of Ontario’s greenhouse industry, which has provided strong support for the project. Dixon explains that his group’s initial research on biological life support focused on nutrient recycling, which was becoming a hot topic in the greenhouse industry. “They were interested in supporting research in sensor technology development and nutrient recycling protocols, and we needed all that stuff for space exploration, so it was a natural kind of technology transfer aspect of our program that was supported by the greenhouse industry.” He explains the technology developments required for space—technologies such as nutrient sensors, nontoxic residue disinfection systems using aqueous ozone, and nutrient recycling management protocols—are all transferable to the greenhouse sector.

Organic farming is another sector that is positioned to reap the benefits of the technology that Dixon initially intended for space, because in space, nitrate fertilizers and toxic chemistry to disinfect systems or control pathogens cannot be used—“and that’s exactly what organic farming is all about,” says Dixon. He is currently developing a method of recirculating nitrogen that will be eligible for the organic farming community.

A biofiltration company has spun off of some of the research that originated inDixon’s lab,which dealt with examining atmosphere management in sealed environments, and specifically looking at trace hydrocarbons that contaminate sealed spaces. Al Darlington, one of Dixon’s former postdoctoral students, founded the company Air Quality Solutions, which was recently purchased by a large roofing company and now goes by the name Nedlaw Living Walls. The company has been successful in putting some of the largest indoor air biological filters in the world into large institutional buildings such as Guelph Humber Building and Cambridge City Hall, and mitigating what is commonly called “Sick Building Syndrome.”

When Dixon’s research into biological life support systems was initiated about 15 years ago, the program was co-funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Ontario Centres of Excellence, and an industry consortium that included the greenhouse industry and Allied Signal Aerospace. It was a three-way split of funding averaging about $50,000 per year for a five-year plan. This funding resulted in the building of their first sealed chambers to evaluate plant production requirements in controlled environments.

Today,Dixon receives funding from a variety of industry partners (including Flowers Canada (Ontario), Purification Research Technologies Inc., SRI Petrochemical, and Heinz Canada) that are interested in technology development and access to personnel. These investments help to lever additional funds from organizations like the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the Ontario Ministry of Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and NSERC. The research group is also supported by the Canadian Space Agency, and has contracts with the European Space Agency and NASA related to controlled environment technology development and applications. The group now boasts an annual operating budget of over $5 million from all sources.


One day, Robert Thirsk (right), may be enjoying a space meal courtesy of University of Guelph’s Mike Dixon (left).

Dixon praises his collaboration with the Ontario Centres of Excellence: “The Ministry of Research and Innovation, which used to be [Premier] McGuinty’s ministry, they did it right, they understand, which is an unusual thing for me to say about politicians,” he says, “They understand what kind of pain and torture is required to take good ideas in research and turn them into marketable products and processes for the benefit of the economy.”

So how close are these chambers to actually growing food on Mars? Cara Chamberlain, one of Dixon’s graduate students, is just finishing her PhD, which outlines the basic engineering requirements for a lunar or Martian greenhouse. Her thesis will establish the pressure limits, atmospheric composition, and the whole infrastructure of nutrient recycling and atmosphere management for these greenhouses. “The developments that we’re working on and Cara’s thesis will contain the recipe for how to grow plants on the moon, literally,” says Dixon.

The next stage of development will involve food characterization studies, which are being done in collaboration with the European Space Agency. This will involve taking the 30 or 40 different crops that form the menu for long-term biological life support, and determining how to best grow each at the total pressure and oxygen concentration of a lunar orMartian greenhouse.

Dixon’s research could eventually have applications for supply and production of food. However, he hesitates to make predictions about that aspect of his work, because, as he puts it, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”Meanwhile, in terms of global food safety, such as development of aqueous ozone disinfection protocols that could be deployed in domestic and industrial applications, Dixon says the impacts of his research will probably be more profound in the near term.

Although it may be many years before Dixon’s greenhouses are actually able to support long-term space missions, the terrestrial applications of his research are providing immediate results. “The moon is kind of a small market, and these people want to make money here on Earth,” says Dixon. “Certainly the technology pull is space exploration… but the main driver [of our research] is very certainly the industrial participation.”

The Future of Food
Canadian scientists are advancing agri-food science and technology to secure the world’s food supply
By Jason Hagerman
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Unfortunately, in North America, nobody is giving anybody lemons, and no lemonade can be found. This is, of course, a small and insignificant effect of the food crisis that is gripping countries all over the world in a much more profound way— but an effect that is being felt at home nonetheless.

Countries that never had the luxury of lemons in the first place are now finding it increasingly hard to get their collective hands on any food at all. Staple foods like rice and corn are failing in supply, and have nearly doubled in price in the last six months. The result of this cost increase is that more than 800 million people will bed down with empty stomachs.

If ever there has been a global event to show just how interconnected the world is, this may be it. The weight of the crisis is being felt—and debated—the world over by parties with various stakes, not least of which is the research community. Indeed scientists—who shoulder much of this weight—are collectively focusing a great deal of energy on setting things right.

And Canadian researchers are playing their part. Among other things, they are creating new breeds of hardier crops; looking at growing corn and wheat in urban environments; and balancing the production of food and biofuels.

The why
Experts argue about specific long-term causes of rising food prices, but two that are universally agreed upon are everincreasing oil prices, and global climate change. Oil is so massively interlinked with almost every aspect of food—production and cultivation, transportation, etc.—that it may be the single largest factor in the world food shortage, both through direct as well as some secondary correlation.

Directly, fuel is needed for farm equipment, irrigation systems and the like. The price of oil has become prohibitive to farmers in developing countries, who can no longer afford to maintain their own land, resulting in a high demand for outside agricultural imports. Food being brought in from places like Canada or Australia has become increasingly expensive because of the sheer cost of transportation. And, of course, there is the force of economics. As supply goes down and demand rises, so must prices. A kilogram bag of rice, for example, cost just .41 cents six months ago in the Philippine capital of Manila; today that bag costs .76 cents.

Indirectly, a careless approach to biofuels is causing corn shortages and massive increases in cost. It is estimated that between 25 and 30 per cent of all corn grown in the U.S. goes to ethanol production—roughly 130 million tons. In searching for more environmentally friendly, cost effective and renewable fuel sources, we are wasting huge stores of edible grains. Further, because of the amount of energy required to process corn-based ethanol, it is a net contributor to global climate change, which is the second certain cause of our food woes.

Freezing conditions in Argentina, and drought in Australia are to blame for the missing lemons. Abnormal drought in dry third world nations is hurting those few farmers who can afford to keep harvesting rice and corn with the costly oil. Unseasonable frosts are killing crops all over the developed world, while floods and severe storms decimate supplies as well.

Ongoing discovery
In order to cope with our increasingly harsh and unpredictable climate, Canadian researchers are putting significant research into increasing crops’ resistance to yield-reducing elements.

According to Mike McGuire, the Director of Eastern Canada Business with Monsanto, the best approach to the food versus fuel debate is to address them both in the same action. “In corn, for example, our focus is really about increasing yield,” McGuire says. “We see that as a real way to address the food or fuel debate. We shape it up as the food and fuel debate. If we increase yields, we can do a lot to address both of these things, and it isn’t necessarily a choice between one or the other.”

Neil Arbuckle, the team lead for Monsanto’s canola research, is looking at ways to increase water use efficiency to increase yield in both corn and soy, and eventually to transplant the genes that produce this result to canola. This will help to both alleviate the strain on corn and soy supplies, as well as to lower prices of healthy, low saturated and trans fat oils.

Monsanto is also currently looking at addressing three distinct yield reducing factors, not limited to specifically Canada. First, and likely most important to farmers in the developing world, is drought-tolerant corn: corn that can survive, and even thrive, in areas never considered viable, but also does not require an arid landscape to grow. Secondly, they are looking for ways to increase the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers. With the price of nitrogen fertilizers doubling in the last year, and environmental concerns surrounding the effects of high levels of nitrogen in soil, McGuire’s researchers are looking at ways to either reduce the amount of nitrogen used while maintaining a healthy yield, or maintaining our current use of nitrogen fertilizers, but increasing the yield. Finally, they are looking at cold tolerance, since a longer growing season could greatly increase the food supply.

“In Ontario and Quebec, growers typically plant their corn around the first of May, but quite often the weather and soil conditions are fit that they could plant the corn crop maybe mid-April,” says McGuire. “The problem with planting that early is that it’s cold enough that the seeds don’t germinate— they sit in the soil a long time and they aren’t vigorous when they emerge… so we’ve actually discovered genes that, when we use them in a corn plant, let you plant the corn into cooler, wetter soils—which tends to be more like our April weather— and the corn will emerge and be more vigorous under cold conditions.”

Reno Pontarollo, Chief Scientific Officer of Genome Prairie, says one of its main focuses is increasing cold tolerance in wheat. Wheat, like corn, falls under the category of cereal, but unlike corn, wheat has managed to produce strong yields in recent years. But with increased incidences of episodic frost (frost which shows up earlier in fall or later in spring) maintaining bountiful yields becomes dependant on the crop’s ability to weather the storm.

Working with Dr. Brian Fowler of the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre (CDC)—who has been researching frost tolerance for the majority of his career —Genome Prairie is “trying to develop new varieties [of wheat] with value-added traits that don’t affect yield under normal conditions, or perhaps slightly enhance it, but under these conditions of stress,” says Pontarollo, “they will thrive, and increase food security.” This is a project with global reaching effects when you consider countries like Norway and Australia also deal with cold conditions at both ends of the growing season. Much of the funding for the cold tolerance research comes through Genome Prairie’s big brother, Genome Canada, as well as the province of Saskatchewan and some smaller international bodies.

“When we have international partners, this shows that we’re really attacking or addressing these issues with the best people available from all over the world,” says Pontarollo.

University of Guelph assistant professor Manish Raizada is working on a slightly different approach. “We’re trying to develop corn plants that will regenerate from root stock for the next growing season,” he says. This would vastly increase the yield in places like Africa, where the climate is tropical and the roots really have no reason to die. Raizada points out that 30 per cent of a plant’s mass is contained in the roots, meaning 30 per cent of the work that is put into every growing season is knowingly destroyed so that growing can begin anew. Maintaining and reusing this root system would vastly increase yield.

Unfortunately, the majority of technologies focused on dealing with the food crisis are not yet ready to be used. Monsanto’s nitrogen utilization genes will not be widely available for at least another six years, and Arbuckle’s canola research is ongoing for another decade.