Agriculture: First “microcosm” for growing plants also in space


ENEA has patented a “microcosm” for growing plants using soil in closed and extreme environments, with an innovative technology capable of mimicking what happens in nature, while allowing plants to reproduce. It will be presented at the “1st Joint AgroSpace-MELiSSA Workshop” (16-18 May, Rome)”

ENEA has patented and developed at its Portici Research Center the first “microcosm” for growing in closed and extreme environments olive, potato, tomato, lettuce and basil employing soil. It’s an actual  hi-tech “simulator”, unique in Italy, which allows to grow higher plants,-those having roots and an aerial part, both ligneous and herbaceous- in “closed” environments typically unsuitable for cultivation, such as airports, subways and shopping centers, as well as “extreme” environments such as desert or glacial areas or as part of space missions. Developed jointly with the FOS Group, this innovative system for “smart agriculture”, differs from greenhouses and traditional growing chambers mainly for its “double-stage“ structure; sensors monitoring environmental parameters affecting growth, development and reproduction of plants; a LED lighting system providing plants with a precision illumination system by means of selected wavelenght instead of the entire solar spectrum.

“The main innovation-Luigi D’Acquino, at the Portici Nanomaterials and Devices Laboratory, pointed out-is the “double-stage” structure, with two independent chambers: a hypogeum chamber, for root and rizosphere growth, that is to say the whole of the organisms living in the substrate where the roots grow, and an epigeal chamber, for the aerial part and phyllosphere growth, that is to say the whole of the organisms living in the aerial environment”.

Although being independent and autonoumous as regards environmental parameters, the two chambers are communicating, just like in nature, thanks to gaseous exchanges taking place by means of the growth substrate of roots (soil, compost or peat).

“The analogy with a cultivated field-D’Aquino went on- is all the more evident if we examine the microcosms from the point of view of growth speed and clorophyll and biomass productivity of plants. We are currently testing the efficacy of a microcosm coupled with precision lighting: we have sown and grown for the same lenght of time basil plants of the same variety, some in pots in laboratory, an inhospitable environment for plants, others in a microcosm under white light, others in a microcosm under a red and blue precision light. After approximately a month, as compared to those grown in laboratory, the ones grown in a microcosm under white light grew much more, but those in the microcosm under precision light developed a biomass ten times higher, more chlorophyll, and also passed to the reproductive phase”.

“Our microcosms- D’Aquino pointed out once more- are actual ecosystems, different from greenhouses and traditional growth chambers, and are capable of accurately replicate in laboratory what happens in a cultivated field when specific environmental conditions take place, and with organisms capable of interfering with plant functions, such as pathogens or pests”.

In addition to the structural solution of two independent chambers, making the structure suitable for growing different types of plants, the microcosm differs from traditional growth chambers also for the more sophisticated management of several environmental factors, notably temperature, luminosity and humidity and for the possibility of remotely managing the whole system, fundamental requisite for applications in extreme environments, where the operator may not be present. But that’s not all. There’s also the innovative possibility of inserting sensors in all the areas the operator deems strategic, and the choice of materials as well, which, for instance, in the epigeal chamber are transparent-to allow remote control-and “pierceable”, to allow sampling without altering the state of plants”.

The microcosms were conceived and developed as part of the activities conducted by the Laboratory TRIPODE and are currently under further development as part of the project ISAAC (Innovative Illumination System for Plant Growth in Closed Environments for Improving Human Well-Being)-co-funded with over 4.7 million euro by Horizon 2020 and PON Companies and Competitiveness 2014-2020 of the Ministry of the Economic Development- in which BECAR, a company controlled by Beghelli, takes part in addition to ENEA and the FOS group.

In addition to microcosm development, the project ISAAC aims at implementing, in three years, an innovative illumination system allowing to efficiently grow, develop and reproduce plants in closed and extreme environments, as well as support an adequate well-being of human beings.

“Our patent-D’Aquino concluded- can be the technological basis for developing prototypes of interest for research laboratories active in different fields of biology, such as plant physiology, plant pathology and parassitology, ecophysiology, ecotossicology, seismic ecology, as well as the basis for developing prototypes useful to spread the cultivation of plants in “non-conventional” environments, with excellent market and trade potential. To this aim we are evaluating setting up a spin-off jointly with our industrial partners”.

The innovation will be presented at the “1st Joint AgroSpace-MELiSSAWorkshop – Current and future ways to Closed Life Support Systems”, organized by the Melissa Foundation (Micro Ecological Life Support System Alternative), due to take place in Rome from 16 to 18 May, one of the most ambitious international research programmes on controlled-environment agriculture and bioregenerative life support systems, necessary for sustaining human life in space. The common goal is sharing knowledge on state-of-the-art systems for food production in space, analyzing the most recent scientific and technological innovation in the sector of protected crops and presenting a status report of the international research on life support systems (


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