FLORENCE -- In the future, a typical lunch menu might consist of star-ripened seaweed salad, Moon-harvested seaweed soup, and Mars-grown seaweed pie. The ingredients might be slightly boring, but when it comes to their origin labels, they'll be quite literally out of the world.

It may sound like science fiction, but growing space plants is closer to reality than most people think. For years now, teams of researchers have been exploring the possibility of future space farming.  Late last month in Florence, the Accademia dei Gergofili, an Italian academy devoted to studying and protecting the rural world, hosted a series of talks on just that possibility. Participants envisioned reaching the goal by the end of the third millennium.

"Interest in growing and developing plants in space has risen alongside interest in carrying out long-term space missions," said Stefano Mancuso, director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. For now, most discussions center around using plants on such missions to fix the level of carbon dioxide, generate oxygen, purify water and produce food, according to Mancuso.

Tossing a Martian salad

More optimistic researchers are looking at space farming as part of a long-term goal of colonizing the Moon or Mars. They want to create a new home for the human race that will be ready once Earth becomes too small to host everyone. Many studies and experiments have already been done.

"In recent years, scientists have focused on studying the effect gravity variation has on the physiology of plants," said Mancuso. "In order to reach this goal, the European Space Agency (ESA), for example, has provided researchers with the access to the International Space Station." Their experiments have shown that plants, particularly if they are exposed step-by-step to different gravity levels, are extraordinarily adaptable. "Recently, we were able to confirm this hypothesis by using ESA's large diameter centrifuge," said Manusco.

Plants are a perfect example of how a terrestrial body can adapt to extraterrestrial conditions. In its laboratories in Turin, Italy, Thales Alenia Space, a leading European satellite systems company, has designed a mini space greenhouse called Eden. There, researchers were able to grow small lettuce plants in simulated Martian soil. One day, our great-great-grandchildren may eat such lettuce at a permanent base on the Red Planet.

From a psychological standpoint, passengers would do well to grow plants during the long voyage to Mars as well. "Research shows that plants have a relaxing impact on people's mood, which is important on very long missions," said Mancuso.

Indeed, a small splash of green from planet Earth could be just the thing to spruce up an otherwise cold and sterile spacecraft.

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Photo - Wikipedia/NASA