The seeds of a tiny, rapidly growing mustard plant, born in space aboard the troubled space station Mir, have sprouted in space, completing a critical first step toward the goal of raising multiple generations of plants in space.

“It is the first time plants have been grown from seed in space and have made seed in space that subsequently was planted and able to grow,” says Mary Musgrave, a Louisiana State University scientist who directed the experiment that depended on a rapid-cycling plant, Brassica rapa, developed at UW-Madison.

Known as Fast Plants and used in classrooms and laboratories worldwide as teaching and research tools, the plants rapidly complete their life cycles, producing seeds just 45 days after planting.

Understanding how plants fare in space is an important goal of the U.S. and Russian space programs. Plants, presumably, would accompany astronauts on any long-duration mission such as a journey to Mars. As fellow travelers, plants earn their way, providing fresh food and reconditioning waste water and stale air. Moreover, plants have been found to provide a much-needed psychological boost to humans confined for many months in cramped and sterile quarters.

The plants’ quick turnaround makes them ideal for experimental use in space, says Coe Wiionms, program manager for the Wisconsin Fast Plants program. Because they grow quickly and flower just 14 days after planting, scientists can observe how the plants grow and develop under conditions removed from gravity, a force that exerts significant influence on Earthbound plants. Since long periods of near weightlessness occur only in space, Mir and orbiters such as the space shuttle have become important laboratories for studying plant growth and development in near gravity-free conditions.

By successfully rearing plants in space, and subsequently germinating seeds that developed under conditions of microgravity, an important milestone in plant space biology has been achieved, says Musgrave.

The plants were raised and tended for months aboard Mir by astronaut Michael Foale. Foale even accomplished the equivalent of plant sex in space, gathering pollen with the thorax of a bee on a stick and passing it from plant to plant.

There was uncertainty about the fate of the experiment after a cargo vessel collided with the space station and damaged one of Mir’s laboratory modules, rendering it useless. A subsequent loss of power cast the plants into darkness for nearly three days, a development that could have doomed the fast-growing plants.

Seeds, however, did develop and Foale says he was able to shine a flashlight through the pods to see the developed seeds inside.

According to Musgrave, the plants took the same amount of time to mature – to germinate, grow, flower and produce seed – as do Fast Plants grown on Earth.

“They were able to flower and make new seeds, and this means that all of the basic processes that you would hope for a plant to be able to do can happen in microgravity,” Musgrave says.

The next step in Musgrave’s research with Wisconsin Fast Plants will begin Nov. 19 with the scheduled launch of 12-day-old Fast Plants aboard the space shuttle. The experiment, using a dwarf variant of Fast Plants, will focus on gaining a better understanding of how plant reproduction proceeds under conditions of microgravity.

The experiment will have a widespread educational component: As many as 50,000 school children around the country and in the Ukraine will grow plants in the classroom to mirror the experiment aboard the shuttle. Sixteen lead teachers from the United States and the Ukraine have been trained by Wisconsin Fast Plants experts, says Williams. Results from the classroom experiments will be published via the Internet in support of the shuttle experiment.

Aboard the shuttle, the plants will be tended by an astronaut from the Ukraine who will take part in downlinked discussions with students involved in the classroom experiments.