A new research centre, led by the University of Adelaide, will focus international expertise on finding ways to provide the next generation of space explorers with nutritious foods, and the on-demand supply of materials and medicines.

Announced today, Friday 4 November, the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre for Excellence in Plants for Space (P4S) will help to establish a long-term human presence in space, while also developing innovations on Earth.

The Australian government is providing $35 million in funding for the new Centre which will be for seven years initially. Additional cash and in kind support from the 38 P4S partners brings the total value to approximately $90 million. 

“The mission of P4S is to re-imagine plant design and bioresource production, through the lens of space, to enable off-Earth habitation and provide transformative solutions to improve on-Earth sustainability,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Matthew Gilliham, Director of the new Centre of Excellence.

“P4S research will create the flexible, plant-based solutions needed to support human physical and psychological well-being during deep space travel and settlement.

“Work undertaken by experts from the Centre will also deliver a step change in plant efficiency, productivity, and processing technologies here on Earth.”

P4S is a major global collaborative transdisciplinary venture partnering 15 academic institutions, five space agencies and enablers, five Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) companies, six education providers, and seven government and technology partners that collectively harness a global fit-for-purpose critical mass not found elsewhere. Foundational Australian University partners are the University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia, Flinders University and La Trobe University.

“P4S represents an international authority and focal point for plant-based space food, material, and engineering research. It will create new technologies and capabilities in plant modification to translate research into applications in space and on Earth,” said P4S Deputy Director and Products program lead, Professor Sally Gras from the University of Melbourne.  

“By training more than 400 researchers, P4S will produce the next generation of internationally connected and industry-focused experts, and accelerate the growth of the burgeoning national and international CEA and biomanufacturing industries,” added P4S Deputy Director and Processes program lead, Professor Melissa de Zwart from Flinders University.

“Long-term off-Earth habitation is on the horizon. However, key challenges remain, which will be addressed head-on by P4S. Mission success depends on having nutritious food and medicines without the need for resupply missions from Earth,” said P4S Plants program lead, Professor Harvey Millar from the University of Western Australia.

P4S will also drive transformational benefits for on-Earth industries and sustainability outcomes. P4S breakthroughs will offer new plant efficiency solutions for challenging Earth environments and work on how to intensively, but sustainably, produce plant-based foods that can reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“Space habitation amplifies the multi-faceted sustainability challenges we face in food and biomaterial production on Earth,” said Dr Kim Johnson, P4S People program lead, from La Trobe University.

“The collective multidisciplinary expertise within P4S will lead innovation in space plant production systems, and realise the Centre’s multi-faceted legacy to fulfil the ambition of humans to explore beyond Earth.”

P4S will expand Australian leadership, collaboration, and capacity in space-inspired plant and food research.

“National and global interest around extra-terrestrial exploration presents an opportunity for P4S experts to build upon South Australia’s space leadership and Australia’s reputation in space research,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Anton Middelberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research).

“Integrated, globally connected, and transformative research programs will address gaps, drive sector co-ordination, build the workforce, and innovate with industry-ready solutions.”

P4S will be an Australian contribution to NASA’s Artemis accords, which have been signed by 21 countries including Australia. The Artemis mission plans to put the first woman and person of colour on the Moon by 2030 and to develop the technologies required for humans to venture to Mars and return to Earth in the 2040s. The first phase of the mission is expected to launch and return to Earth by the end of 2022.

Head of the Australian Space Agency, Mr Enrico Palermo, said: “As humankind looks to return to the Moon, this time we do it with the view to establishing a sustainable presence that will allow us to explore further than ever before.

“There are many challenges associated with ensuring humans can live sustainably on the Moon. P4S is just one way in which Australia can contribute to making this happen as part of our commitment to the Artemis Accords.

“We’re excited about the possibilities this brings and the opportunities it creates for our growing space sector.”

Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Plants for Space partners are:

Academic institutions
Australian International
University of Adelaide University of California Berkeley
Flinders University University of California Davis
University of Melbourne University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Western Australia Rice University
La Trobe University University of Arizona
University of Cambridge
University of Nottingham
French National Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment
Jülich Research Centre
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich
Space Agencies Space Enablers
NASA Axiom Space
Australian Space Agency yuri
German Space Agency
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) companies Government agencies
Space Lab Technologies SA Space Industry Centre
Vertical Future Defence Science and Technology Group
MineARC Systems Department of Primary Industries and Regions
GAIA Project Australia
Education and Outreach Technology providers
Andy Thomas Space Foundation BioPlatforms Australia
Victorian Space Science Education Centre Twist Bioscience
Hamilton Secondary College Space School Australian Genome Research Facility
One Giant Leap Australian Plant Phenomics Facility
SA Botanic Gardens and Herbarium
Dr Joanna McMillan

Original media release on Friday 4th November 2022, on University of Adelaide Newsroom

Media contacts:

Professor Matthew Gilliham, Waite Research Institute, The University of Adelaide. Mobile: +61(0)431 663 614 Email: matthew.gilliham@adelaide.edu.au

Crispin Savage, Manager, News and Media, The University of Adelaide. Mobile: +61 (0)481 912 465. Email: crispin.savage@adelaide.edu.au

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