Food of the future: how scientists grow plants in the dark

Victor LitvinenkoLife
Food of the future: how scientists grow plants in the dark

Harvest crops grown without sun or soil? Easy! The scientific journal Science recently published an article in which American chemical engineer Robert Jinkerson turned the world of plants upside down! The researcher has developed a new theory of so-called "dark growing," which in the future will allow for harvesting 8 times more efficiently regardless of natural and climatic conditions.

The scientist has already experimentally proved his theory on the example of growing tomatoes. The discovery can be revolutionary both for our planet and for the exploration of space, the researcher thinks. In particular,  NASA is already interested in the development of the engineer.

Space food on Earth

Robert Jinkerson, an American chemical engineer at the University of California at Riverside, sees no obstacles for an astronaut mission to Mars. The question of what the crew will eat for three years can be discarded in the near future," the scientist believes. "Astronauts should grow their on-board garden in the dark, stimulating plant growth with artificial nutrients rather than sunlight," Jinkerson argues.

"It's not going to be easy! After all, plants have evolved hundreds of millions of years to get their energy from sunlight. However, by awakening the metabolic processes of plants, it is possible to ensure that seeds germinate as they do in nature."

According to the scientist, with artificial photosynthesis, it is possible to grow food in total darkness. American chemists and biologists, led by Jinkerson, have already conducted the experiment, which was divided into two stages. In the first step, the researchers obtained an acetate compound using carbon dioxide, electricity and water. In the second step, the scientists were able to grow plants in the dark by feeding them with acetate.

According to the engineers, this plant-growing technology will be more than 8 times more efficient than the natural process:

"It allows us to see agriculture in a new way. People can also save the cost of vertical farming, a method already used to produce expensive fruits and vegetables for restaurants and other high-end consumers," says Jinkerson.

In today's vertical farms, plants are grown indoors on racks stacked from floor to ceiling with LED lights. According to the scientist, the electricity required to power these lights and other needs is 7 times greater than that of a conventional greenhouse. The additional costs limit the scale of vertical farming.

"Our approach involves eliminating light and growing more plant species in the dark," the scientist summarizes.

What can "dark farming" bring to mankind?

Robert Jinkerson isn't the only scientist who is studying the technology of growing plants without natural conditions in depth.  But so far he is the only one who has been able to harvest plants in the lab. Another American scientist, Lucas Van Der Zee, a plant biologist at Wageningen University, has also tried to grow plants in the dark, but had no success:

"When mankind began to develop agriculture during evolution, food production depended on the sun. But if you find a way to separate plant growth from light, it would be a huge achievement and would change food production not only on our planet, but throughout the universe," says the biologist.

The scientist notes that on Earth, light is free and abundant, so modern agriculture does not yet need the "metabolic charms" of Jinkerson. However, for growing expensive varieties of vegetables and fruits, it may make sense. Dark farming has allowed growers to turn sugar, which now costs only 45 cents a pound on the market, into a product with a much higher value.

"Cultivation" without limits

Growing plants without light allows for year-round crops anywhere in the world without worrying about drought, storms, air temperatures, etc. It also eliminates all the issues with transporting products over long distances. Scientists believe that tomatoes, rice, rapeseed and green peas can be grown in complete darkness using the new method. At least, successful tests have already been conducted on these plants.

According to the researchers, artificial photosynthesis opens up many opportunities to grow crops even under adverse climate conditions. Plants can be grown and harvested in urban environments, as well as in places that will be unsuitable for farming in the future. The new technology for obtaining plant food can also influence the fight against world hunger, and will allow plants to be grown even on the Moon and Mars, scientists believe.

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