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Sweetpotato vine management for confined food production in a space life-support system

Sweetpotato (Ipomea batatas L.) ‘Whatley–Loretan’ was developed for space life support by researchers at Tuskegee University for its highly productive, nutritious storage roots. This promising candidate space life-support crop has a sprawling habit and aggressive growth rate in favorable environments that demands substantial growing area. Shoot pruning is not a viable option for vine control because removal of the main shoot apex drastically inhibits storage-root initiation and development, and chemical growth retardants typically are not cleared for use with food crops. As part of a large effort by the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Advanced Life Support to reduce equivalent system mass (ESM) for food production in space, the dilemma of vine management for sweetpotato was addressed in effort to conserve growth area without compromising root yield. Root yields from unbranched vines trained spirally around wire frames configured either in the shapes of cones or cylinders were similar to those from vines trained horizontally along the bench, but occupying only a small fraction of the bench area. This finding indicates that sweetpotato is highly adaptable to a variety of vine-training architectures. Planting a second plant in the growth container and training the two vines in opposite directions around frames enhanced root yield and number, but had little effect on average length of each vine or bench area occupied. Once again, root yields were similar for both configurations of wire support frames. The 3–4-month crop-production cycles for sweetpotato in the greenhouse spanned all seasons of multiple years during the course of the study, and although electric lighting was used for photoperiod control and to supplement photosynthetic light during low-light seasons, there still were differences in total light available across seasons. Light variations and other environmental differences among experiments in the greenhouse had more effects on vine length than on root yield. Average vine length correlated positively with total hours of daylight received across seasons, and responses for one plant per container were higher above a threshold duration of solar exposure, suggesting that the vines of two plants per container compete for available light. In addition to the adaptability of sweetpotato to various vine-training architectures and across seasons in terms of maintaining root productivity, the open, interior volumes of the support frames tested in this study will provide future opportunity to enhance sweetpotato root yield in space by adding novel interior lighting, such as from intracanopy arrays of light-emitting diodes. This work was sponsored by NASA grant NAG 5 1286.

About Christine Bukania