Raymond Wheeler: "the seed potato industry uses techniques developed by NASA"
What is your relationship with the MELiSSA project?
I’ve known about the MELISSA project for 25 years; I first visited the Barcelona pilot plant for the MELiSSA program in 2001. I’ve known professor Francesc Gòdia for many years. He’s been the head of this group here at UAB. It’s been a long-standing relationship that we’ve built over the years.
How is the relationship between bioregenerative life support researchers around the world?
The bioregenerative life support area is an international effort. There are groups like NASA and ESA involved, so the community really gets to know each other. We even enacted a working group where we met once a year, representatives from each of the groups, to discuss research, challenges, and things that we have come to an interest in.
What degree should one start with to end up doing research in the field of bioregenerative life support?
If you want to get into biology or plant science, I think a general degree in plant science it’s enough to get you going. Likewise engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace, whatever. If you get into a graduate program, begin to focus more on some of these areas if you’re interested in this field.
And then, if you go into a Ph.D., then you must find and really focus on a specific question and set a hypothesis that you want to test.
What advice would you give to students who want to dedicate themselves to research?
I think it’s important if you have an interest to try to build relationships and get to know people in these areas. Don’t be shy about it, go introduce yourself and say, ‘I’m interested in this’. I was fortunate to know some faculty at different in the US and I applied to some of their programs and was able to get into that.
Can you also do research on bioregenerative life supports from engineering?
Yes, if you want to get there is a sort of parallel track that engineers that I worked with have followed, that is through agriculture engineering. With the term agriculture engineering, you tend to think of field settings and equipment for harvesting and irrigating. Indeed, that is a part of agriculture engineering, but managing plants and crops and agriculture in controlled environments is another. I think that’s an area that students could note.
How would you define the field of bioregenerative life support?
It’s a broad area, and maybe everyone has their own definition, but I would say bioregenerative life support is considering any ways of incorporating biology for the overall goal of providing human life support for space.
It doesn’t mean that everything has to be biological, right now everything is mostly physical and chemical systems on the space station. Biology isn’t contributing much there right now, but as you go further and stay longer, the costs of using these other systems and resupplying food, for example, become very expensive. Bioregenerative life support systems can help with that.
What kind of studies would you like to see start in the field of bioregenerative life support?
I think one area that I would like to see is to do more sustained studies and operations of components of bioregenerative systems, different assemblages, or integrated versions, but do prolonged studies, for several years. Because I think this is what we need to do if we are going to use these systems for years when they get to Mars.
I consider that there are questions that need to be done about long-duration kinds of experiments and tests: how reliable are they? What if something fails? How do you deal with it? What types of things would fail if they failed? How do they integrate and how do you evolve into these systems over time?
We have lots of new tools now; from a biological perspective, we have molecular biology, and I think we can always infuse a lot of these new tools to help improve our techniques and our capabilities. I think there is always room to improve things there. Just come up with whole new solutions.
In 2017 you published the paper Agriculture for Space: people and places paving the Way in Open Agriculture journal, where you documented the history of bioregenerative life support research. What was your motivation to write it?
I began to think about how I should focus this paper and I thought that it might be nice to see if I could give credit to the different groups that have been researching in the field through these years since the 1950s.
All the groups that I have met have been very energetic and very enthusiastic about what they do, and I was too, so we shared this energy. I just wanted the opportunity to give credit to these people for all that they have done, their enthusiasm, their hard work, and their dedication. I’m very glad I wrote it, it’s one of the most gratifying papers that I’ve written because I could get pictures and show them to people (laughs).
How do you assess research in bioregenerative life supports?
The bioregenerative life support has been a very rewarding field for me. This area has been one of the more enduring, long-lasting themes for space research believe it or not. NASA was formed in 1958 and even at that time there were researchers beginning to look at using algae to generate oxygen for human space travel, and likewise, there were Russian researchers at that time. The Russians and the US were headed and got started early in space things. It was even discussed earlier by novelists and other scientists who didn’t have the capabilities to do much, but they speculated about this, and I thought that was neat.
Has some of your research, focused on space, paved the way for research for Earth?
There has been a parallel development of what you might say terrestrial controlled environment agriculture, like greenhouses. The knowledge generated in studies made for space, where it is necessary to be in a controlled environment, has then also been used on Earth: increase production, do specialty crops, get them to produce in the winter, lighting crops with LED, hydroponic agriculture, etc.
We could push yields of crops where we could exceed world record yields from field settings and, that said, to me, there’s untapped potential in our field crops. We just have to figure out how to get the most out of them.
Finally, both in Earth and space, we had to deal with trace contaminants in closed systems, like very high dioxide carbon levels, and we all know that it is rising all the time. So, there has been this interesting parallel development. We have learned from terrestrial systems, and I think terrestrial systems had learn from space.
Bioregenerative life support collaborates with many groups from other disciplines to achieve new technologies that also help in other fields and industries here on Earth. How is the collaboration with researchers and groups from different fields?
I think it’s a good collaboration. I’m a plant person so I’m a little bit skewing my discussions toward plants, but bioregenerative systems are much broader. They involve the use of microbes, bacteria, or fungi, for example, to convert inedible biomass. Animals, such as insects or fish, are also used for this purpose.
Of course, in microbiology systems of bacteria are used, such as cyanobacteria. The MELiSSA group has really specialized for many years in waste degradation. They are the same principles that are used in natural ecosystems, that happen in actual ecosystems, and that are also used in municipal wastewater treatment systems, they’re all biologically based.
Bioregenerative researchers are a broad community and I think there has been a good synergy between all those groups, engineering, microbiology, chemistry, plant science, computer science, and lots more.
You were a consultant in the 90s for a company to which you advised on large-scale production of seed potatoes in controlled environments. How has the relationship of your research with the industry been? Have you or your research group continued to advise private companies in sectors related to your research?
I think in general, as a community, bioregenerative life supports researchers, has been a good positive and ongoing relationship with industry.
Personally, I did indeed consult with a company about growing seed potatoes and controlled environments; seed potatoes are the propagation stock. To propagate enough seed potatoes to supply the growing market takes the equivalent of like 5 to 7 years to generate that. That means if you do that in field settings each year, you’re in a field you just lose, statistically from virus and disease that gets into the potatoes, around the 10-15% of the ultimate yield potential.
If you can do that in very clean environments like in greenhouses or totally enclosed chambers that you can be very sanitary with and take very strong measures to keep these diseases out, your propagation stock will be very high quality. The seed potato industry is very interested in that: to this day there are groups that use the techniques that NASA developed for doing that.
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Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona