EDEN ISS — Ground Demonstration of Plant Cultivation Technologies for Safe Food Production in Space

Interview Alberto Battistelli

Today, after a few weeks break, I present you the interview that I have done with EDEN ISS team member Dr. Alberto Battistelli. He is First Researcher at the Institute of Agro-environmental and Forest Biology (IBAF) of the Italian National Research Council (CNR).

Alberto Battistelli is an agronomist, with a long standing experience in the study of physiological, biochemical and molecular regulation of primary metabolism and photosynthesis in plants, in relation to environmental parameters. He is conducting research on plant productivity and quality for food and biomass production with special interest on sustainability.  The CNR group includes Stefano Moscatello, Simona Proietti, Filomena Nazzaro, Raffaele Coppola and Florinda Fratiani.

Alberto Battistelli

Paul: How does your daily work-life look like?

Alberto: A typical daily work looks like a Christmas morning; you get into the room and find a lot of surprises. My work at the CNR is to perform scientific research on the area of plant –environment interaction. Research is a wonderful job; it is the application of curiosity to produce new knowledge with solid methods. And at the CNR we do it for the benefit of all, we are a public research entity, the largest in Italy, actually. During a normal day I might interact with a local citizen asking for help on home gardening and with our friends at the University of Arizona Tucson, for NASA granted collaborative research on space plant cultivation. On the same day I can supervise a student report or set up collaboration with a pharmaceutical industry seeking for new analytical methods and new prebiotic plant derived molecules. Looking for resources, reporting on resources use, participating to student formation, writing and reviewing project, reports, papers, planning, performing and evaluating experiments, reading scientific papers of other scientists from all around the world are all normal activities I am involved in normal days. It’s a lot of fun!

Paul: What can you tell us about your work on EDEN ISS? What are you responsible for? 

Alberto: CNR participates with two Institutes to this project IBAF and ISA. Our team will collaborate tightly with a group at the Limerick Institute of Technology to ensure that plant food produced in the project is of high organoleptic and nutritional quality and perfectly safe. Plants interact with the abiotic and biotic environment. In the EDEN-ISS project we can control the growing environment to favor positive plant environment interaction not only to maximize the amount of plant produce but also to maximize quality and safety of plant food. Knowledge generated by the project should help to optimize plant-environment interaction on earth based systems where negative plant–environment interactions are responsible of tremendous production uncertainties and decreases of food quantity and quality at the global level. We hope that knowledge produced by the EDEN-ISS project will be useful for advances in space exploration ability, but also to make plant cultivation more reliable on earth and help fighting malnutrition and increase sustainability of agricultural systems.

Paul: What fascinates you about EDEN ISS?

Alberto: People and commitments. These are the two things that most make me happy to be part of this project. EDEN ISS is the result of the efforts of a group of persons, institutions and companies who strongly believe that space technology can be of great help for both space exploration and sustainability on earth. It took several years of dedicated research, collaboration, attempts, networking to reach the stage at which we are: running a large project with a grant from H2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. A very heterogeneous crew joined the project. People of different expertise, age, origin, formation, all working in open collaboration to pursuit a unique goal. A magnificent example of how science and the EU can help diversity to produce common results of general benefits.

For me, this is a unique opportunity to carry out research on the environmental control of plant food quality and safety. If nutritious and safe plant food can be produced sustainably and respecting the environment in such an extreme site as the Antarctica region then future food availability might depend less on “arable land” than now. This could be a very good news for the increasing world population and can help to pursuit the Sustainable Development Goals recently set by the United Nations.

Being part of all this is not only fascinating, it is an honor.

Paul: Imagine you are in are Martian Base and running a greenhouse. What kind of plants would you grow?

Alberto: I will select colors. Plants provide us the larger fraction of energy we need to survive but also with an incredible array of nutritionally relevant compounds that are as important for our wellbeing as energy itself. Energy comes from carbohydrates and fat, that are white or colorless on itself. Many of the nutritionally relevant compounds have color codes. Beside growing cereals potatoes, and legumes for carbohydrates fat and proteins I would grow plants that will color the Martian greenhouse of green, red, orange, yellow, violet black leaves, flowers and fruit. The Martian crew would benefits of colorful plants produce from a nutritional point of view, furthermore they could experience a permanent summer garden rich of colors, fragrances and shapes that should mitigate the psychological threat of living on such an inhospitable planet.

Paul: Thank you for the interview, Alberto!

Alberto: Thank you Paul. It was a pleasure.