Taking Plants off This Planet: What Does Spaceflight Teach Us about Biology, Adaptation and Our Place in the Universe with Rob Ferl

The study of space biology, along with astrobiology and exobiology, challenges plant science to actually probe the edges of existence and adaptation. For example, gravity is one of the fundamental tropic forces that impact plant growth and development, and the dissection of gravity-related signaling has been a rich source of insights into the metabolic paths plants take as they respond to changes in their environment.

Science can now probe the role of gravity in defining plant biology, and explore what is truly a novel environment – one that has not been approached in the evolutionary history of plants. The insights that these experiments have contributed to our understanding of plant processes are varied and complex and extend far beyond gravitropism.

In addition, plants have long been considered critical components of long-term exploration life support systems, and the challenges of creating suitable plant growth conditions within spaceflight vehicles and extraterrestrial habitats have driven interesting hardware engineering solutions. These solutions have, in turn, resulted in tremendous gains in our understanding of plant biology in the exploration venue.

Participants will:

  • Gain an appreciation for space biology as a science
  • Develop insights into the processes of experimentation in spaceflight vehicles and venues
  • Understand the roles of plants in extraterrestrial exploration life support


Dr. Robert Ferl
Distinguished Professor and Director of ICBR

Rob is a distinguished professor and the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research. His experimental heritage is the study of gene expression in response to environmental change, and recently that environment has been spaceflight and extraterrestrial habitats. Rob Co-chairs the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space for the National Academy of Sciences, and is past president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research. Among his honors are the 2016 NASA Medal of Honor for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the 2016 AIAA Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award. While a dedicated lab geek, he enjoys and advocates for the field experiential side of science – he and his lab have flown with their experiments on many parabolic flight and other research aircraft to study aspects of the microgravity environment and develop flight hardware for understanding biological effects of spaceflight. Rob also conducts ground-based science on space-related environmental effects on terrestrial biology and works within planetary exploration analogs, including the Haughton Mars Project in Arctic and Antarctic venues.