Book Review: Revolutionary Understanding of Plants

many chili peppers

Will plant intelligence compel future spacefarers to carry chili peppers? © Tomas Castelazo. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Stefano Mancuso’s book The Revolutionary Understanding of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior (2017) makes the case that plants are an often ignored, under-appreciated and yet extremely intelligent life form that has the ability to solve human sustainability challenges and even can teach us how to better govern ourselves.

Mancuso is an associate professor at the University of Florance and directs the Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale (International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, or LINV).

Mancuso’s chief hypothesis can be summed up as follows. Animals can move so they escape from problems. They can run away from predators. They can migrate away from adverse environmental change. In contrast, plants are sessile (fixed in one place). Therefore, plants have no choice but to actually solve problems, and hence engage in forms of intelligence to devise and implement solutions that are sometimes obvious, yet other times subtle or downright devious.

Mancuso asserts that plants by necessity have developed intelligence that differs greatly from animal intelligence. Animals have a central brain, which is a suitable strategy for animals who can get out of the way of destruction. Plants cannot directly escape trouble. They have to survive partial destruction of a magnitude that would kill most animals. For example, plants and their intelligence mechanisms often get partially eaten. Plants have overcome this existential challenge to their intelligence by utilizing extensive redundancy and decentralized intelligence.

For example, acacia trees has developed a solution to discourage predators involving excreting nectar along their branches. That nectar attracts ants who discourage harmful insects from attaching the tree. The subtle element is that the nectar also contains chemicals that make the nectar highly addictive, hence enslaving the ants to the tree. The devious element is that the nectar also contains drugs that make the ants so frenzied and aggressive that they will attach much larger animals who approach the tree. Mancuso takes passionate joy from pointing out that plants are not the mere servants and victims of animals, but often the actual master of animals. Although this could be dismissed as mere professional bravado to position oneself as the alpha biologist at conferences, Mancuso makes a compelling case.

Another example, relevant to space travel, concerns humans being one of the best spreaders (“carriers”) of plant species. Humans have spread local plant species such as potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and coffee plants across the globe. One poignant example is that of chili peppers, which originated in a region in Mexico. Chilis are painful to eat, but that pain releases highly addictive endorphins in humans. Chili plants have in essence manipulated humans to cultivate chili peppers across the world, to such a degree that chilis, in a just few hundreds of years, have become such highly traditional foods in many cultures that is is difficult to image such cuisines without chili peppers. Now that humans are already transporting plants into space, it is to be wondered at what transformations plants will invoke upon future spacefarers.

A stump above electro-mechanical roots.

Plantoid capable of sol exploration. Credit: plantoid project.

Mancuso also feels that plants hold lessons for future space exploration, since they have redundant, fault-tolerant systems and structures and use only low amounts of energy. He has worked with the European Space Agency to study how decentralized root growth intelligence and mechanisms can be used to create a network of soil explorers comprising “plantoids” (robotics inspired by plants) across the Martian surface. So someday there could be robotic plants in space, perhaps carried by robotic humans!

Further Information:

Capillary structures could provide lower risk water recycling

Rows of small structures

Capillary Evaporator prototype with transparent capillary structures filled with test fluids. Credits: IRPI LLC

Human use a lot of water for drinking and hygiene. Recycling is a key strategy to make the water that is launched into space last longer. Existing water recycling methods in space use harmful chemicals or considerable energy, and do not recycle 100% of the water. Reliability is crucial as well. So the search continues for new approaches to improve the water recycling process.

NASA is considering capillary structures for water recycling. Capillary action involves electrostatic forces literally pulling water through small tubes, similar to how drops of water will hang on objects despite the force of gravity pulling them away. NASA’s capillary structures investigation studies “a new method of water recycling and carbon dioxide removal using structures designed in specific shapes to manage fluid and gas mixtures in microgravity.” The capillary structures equipment is made up of small, 3-D printed geometric shapes and sizes sizes (see above image).

This investigation also involved evaporation. “If you could do controllable evaporation in space, you could do all kinds of things” said Mark Weislogel, one of the project’s principal investigators.  “You could evaporate urine and recover all of the water. All of it. If you had a way of holding the liquid in a passive, no-moving-parts way like a puddle does on earth, but in space, then you could do a lot of unique processing, safely and with no maintenance.”

Just as with the capillary investigations, the evaporation “structures are set up to have different geometries, different angles, different heights, all these different parameters that we are varying across these structures to get quantitative data of evaporation in low gravity,” according to Kyle Viestenz, co-investigator for the project.

“If you could do controllable evaporation in space, you could do all kinds of things” said Mark Weislogel, one of the project’s principal investigators.  “You could evaporate urine and recover all of the water. All of it. If you had a way of holding the liquid in a passive, no-moving-parts way like a puddle does on earth, but in space, then you could do a lot of unique processing, safely and with no maintenance.”

Contractor held in hand.

Capillary Sorbent contactor with channels to expose liquid to ambient air. Credits: IRPI LLC

Another part of the investigation demonstrates the use of fluids in a carbon dioxide removal system, called the Carbon Dioxide Liquid Sorbent System. This system uses a network of “water falls” to bring a material used to absorb gases, into contact with air, allowing the carbon dioxide to be carried away by the liquid. In a microgravity environment, the liquid does not “fall,” but is driven by surface tension forces generated passively by the unique surface geometry of the capillary structures.

It is unknown if or when this technology would be deployed.

Further Information:

tanks and components mounted on three racks

NASA ISS water recovery equipment at Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: SustainSpace.

Airbus ESA Advanced Closed Loop System (ACLS)

Two technicians point to large instrument box.

ACLS technology demonstrator generates oxygen and water in a closed system

The Advanced Closed Loop System (ACLS) is an advanced life support system that has been developed by Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA) to be used as a technology demonstrator on the ISS, in the Destiny module, from summer 2018. The ACLS will be installed in the HTV-7 space transporter at the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan and is due to be transported to the ISS in August 2018. It is set to be operated for a period of one year.

The ACLS will purify air and produce oxygen for the International Space Station (ISS). Specifically, the ACLS extracts a portion of the carbon dioxide in the cabin atmosphere. Then, using hydrogen obtained from splitting water molecules, it will convert the carbon dioxide into methane and water in what is known as the Sabatier process. Oxygen is then produced from this water using electrolysis. Airbus asserts that this will increase overall system efficiency and hence reduce the need for supplies from Earth.

The main advantage claimed for the ACLS is the use of the adsorbent Astrine, a solid amine resin, which has a high adsorption capacity even at the carbon dioxide levels in the cabin air. The ACLS will be contained in an International Standard Payload Rack (ISPR).

A future use for the ACLS may be for the Deep Space Gateway / Lunar Outpost. NASA is reported to be looking to the ESA for part of the habitat.


Orbital Genomics concept

In addition to blogging, SustainSpace engages in concept and product development. SustainSpace authors Afshin Khan and Mark Ciotola have developed the Oribital Genomics venture converted with astro culture. Recently, the Orbital Genomics concept won ESA Space Explorations Masters prize. 


Plants provide food, breathable air and psychological benefits. With plans materializing for a Deep Space Gateway, Lunar Village and the Mars community, there may be a lot more people living in the lower Earth orbit and microgravity environments, besides on the International Space Station. However, food production in space is still in its nascent stage. Existing prepackaged astronaut food is not a healthy option for long haul space missions. There is no way to regularly transport fresh fruit and vegetables. It is becoming increasingly evident that we must be able to successfully grow food in space.

Plant experiments done on ISS have presented various challenges, such as, years of preparation, little iteration and fewer conclusive results. Furthermore, ISS is limited in its genetic analysis capabilities and there are limited astronaut hours for dedicated biological analysis. Hence, for at least the next decade or more, most analysis of plants and seeds grown in space must be accomplished on Earth, which is not feasible.


Agile approaches by Orbital Genomics aims to adapt, develop and finally grow crops in space to solve the food production challenge in lower Earth orbit and planetary bodies of interest. Additionally benefit agriculture on Earth.

Loop where seeds are launched into space, plants returned to Earth, and successive generations launched.

Concept for rapid evolution of plants for adaptability in space environments.

Market Strategy

We also aim to enter the market as an “astroculture uber-service” for citizen scientists, farmers and agricultural companies, who would be provided with a platform for developing space adapted crops and gaining from space treated crops, to adapt in various challenging conditions on Earth, due to climate change and drought.

Rows representing experiments

Sample dashboard for astroculture-as-a-service concept

Circles containing crops are superimposed on squares containing dry, unplanted or fallow land.

SustainSat brings satellite approaches to Earth

SustainSat is a platform that can be used as either a prototype for CubeSats or as an Earth-based sensor and data-logging platform. It is intended as a low-cost, barebones way to learn about the general categories of technologies used in cubesats as well as to use those technologies for sustainability purposes on Earth.

SustainSat is built around the Arduino prototyping platform. It is different from ArduSat in that it is not specifically set up for use in space. SustainSat technology can be adapted for space, such as through ArduSat. However, SustainSat provides devices ready for use on Earth or on balloons and kites. It is perhaps the lowest-cost, simplest way to explore satellite technology in a sophisticated way, while empowering users to create and adapt real devices.

The simplest form of SustainSat is a simple light monitor, such as for sunlight, combined with an inertial unit. Such a device is similar to a real device that monitors solar luminosity, or a 1 pixel space telescope. It provides guidance data for potential reaction wheels or thrusters.

More sophisticated forms of SustainSat include wireless transmitting and data logging capabilities, as well as other sensors. A version of SustainSat that can capture hyperspectral information is under development.


First Flowers Grown on International Space Station

Commander Scott Kelly (Expedition 46) shared photographs of a blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station (16 January 2016).  “Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace”, Kelly wrote.

Flowers growing on International Space Station

Flowers growing on International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

This flowering crop experiment began on Nov. 16, 2015, when NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the Veggie system and its rooting “pillows” containing zinnia seeds. The Veggie provides lighting and nutrient delivery, but utilizes the cabin environment for temperaturecontrol and as a source of carbon dioxide to promote growth, according to NASA.

Growing zinnias provided an opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. In late December, Kelly found that the plants “weren’t looking too good,” and told the ground team, “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”

plastic accordion plant chamber

VEGGIE prototype (photocredit: NASA)

The Veggie team on Earth created what was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of the astronaut who had the plants right in front of him. The care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener. Soon, the flowers were on the rebound, and on Jan. 12, pictures showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds.”

Further Information