The Curious Case of Lithuanian Astrobotany
In the 1970s, Lithuanian scientists started experimenting with plants and their ability to grow in microgravity conditions. Their work culminated in 1982 when Arabidopsis Thaliana was grown in outer space from seed to seed; a world-first achieved by Lithuanians.
The project was officially led by academic Prof Alfonsas Merkys. Although the actual work was undertaken by his team. Dr Danguolė Švegždienė was one of the scientists who made history with this astro botanical breakthrough and and to that end, created an inherent part of the Lithuanian identity. She recounts a mesmerising story of creativity, perseverance and ingenuity of a group of scientists working under a totalitarian regime.
From Enzyme Factory to Astrobotany Laboratory
Dr Švegždienė is a biophysicist. Following her PhD in 1970, she was hoping to work with the human visual system. Unfortunately, at that time under Soviet rule, scientists couldn’t decide for themselves what direction they wanted to go in after graduation. The Soviets had a so-called ‘attribution’ system where they assigned projects to each of the graduates. Dr Švegždienė was assigned a role at the enzyme factory where she spent the next three years.
‘I was fed up and realised this was not for me,’ says Dr Švegždienė while laughing, ‘I was thinking about learning to code or something. And by coincidence I met Dr Romualdas Laurinavičius who invited me to join a new group led by Prof Alfonsas Merkys at the Institute of Botany. Their ambition was to grow plants in space, which sounded interesting to me although I didn’t quite understand what it involved.’
When Dr Švegždienė started her new job in 1973, everything was a little chaotic. The scientists of the Institute of Botany had already developed a device that had been flown into space several times. ‘It resembled a hedgehog. At the time, it was not known if the plants could germinate without the usual gravity. And if they could – how the seedlings would develop. I was entrusted with preparing an experiment using this device. Placed in a special chamber, the device travelled into space with the moistened peas attached, and at the end of the mission, it was returned to us’, says Dr Švegždienė.
New experiments, together with scientists from Moscow, started around 1974 during the ‘Salyut’ programme. At that point, the scientists were trying out what Dr Švegždienė calls ‘proto-orangery’ – an oasis for growing plants in space. Scientists tried to grow many different plant cultures; onions, peas, and wheat.
‘Peas were our favourite because they are very resilient; they grow easily, and they have reserves of materials. We also knew from the “hedgehogs” that I mentioned earlier that something happens to peas in space, some germination occurs, – there was something for us to start from’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Huge Cosmonaut Fingers and Flowers in Space
Growing a plant in space wasn’t only difficult because of the absence of gravity – plants orient themselves using gravity – but also because there were no technological solutions to make it possible at the time. What seems basic today, was almost unimaginable in the 1970s.
During transportation to and from the lab, the seeds were affected by the Earth’s conditions, but from the moment they were onboard the rocket going to and from space, they had to withstand a huge overload. Dr Švegždienė’s team had to come up with a method to take dry seeds to space and only allow them to grow once they got there. The experiment then had to continue for say, three weeks, before their vital functions had to be stopped until they had returned to the lab in Vilnius.
To compare the differences and get the most accurate data, Dr Švegždienė’s team always ran two experiments – one in space, and one analogous on Earth. They noticed that the peas in space grew very slowly; some of the processes of their growing cycles didn’t even start.
‘For example, we noticed that after 21 days in space, the specimens started germination but some parts dried out, others decayed. In other words, something was not right. The peas on Earth went through completely different cycles. There was nobody to tell us what went wrong so we had to analyse and understand that ourselves – maybe the atmosphere affected them, maybe there was too much water, we had no idea’, explains Dr Švegždienė.
Dr Švegždienė’s team thought of two new directions for the devices. One was a closed and controlled autonomous system where, aside from gravity, plant cycles were completely under control; water, oxygen, seeding. Later, it evolved into a micro-orangery that was named ‘Fiton’. Another was a ‘Biogravistat’, a centrifuge for plant growth in microgravity.
‘When cosmonauts worked on Biogravistat they had to do some of the tasks themselves, like watering the seeds using micropipettes. Imagine, cosmonauts using tiny micropipettes with their huge fingers’, Dr Švegždienė remembers, ‘The cosmonauts were professionals but living in a noisy, cramped and nauseous machine they needed something “human” that reminded them of Earth, like plants, thus the experiment gained an almost a religious status and that perhaps helped them look after the plants extremely well.’
The team hoped these two different devices could help them compare results and find out the effects of gravity changes in space versus the amounts of water, oxygen, etc. the specimen receives during the experiment. In 1978 the first Biogravistat and Fiton were tested on the Salyut orbital station.
‘It took us a long time and many experiments, both on Earth and in space, until 1982 when aboard Salyut 7 Thale cress, a spindly plant with white flowers, flourished and formed seeds on Fiton-3’, says Dr Švegždienė.
After a successful attempt, Dr Švegždienė’s team continued running experiments and improving the devices and their abilities. For instance, with Biogravistat, they tested how much gravity the plants needed. Dr Švegždienė studied lettuce, called ‘Berlin Yellow’, and it turned out that around 1/1000th of the Earth’s gravity was enough for the roots to grow in the right direction. In 1984 the findings were published in the prestigious journal Advances in Space Research.¹
The Weird Reality of the Soviet Regime
Since she is considered one of the international pioneers of astrobotany, I asked Dr Švegždienė if the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the European Space Energy (ESA) ever contacted her or her colleagues for advice. Turns out, the Fiton and Biogravistat devices were patented within the Soviet Union. Neither the scientists from Dr Švegždienė’s team, nor the scientists from institutions outside of the Union could access more information.
‘I only found out about the patents when I was closing the lab years later. The holders of the patents were Prof Merkys and other Soviet scientists, although they had nothing to do with the devices. We built them, we did the science and engineering. My name was only listed if they had space for it after all of the officials were listed. You know… back then I was a little disappointed but life went on, I made peace with that.’
Dr Švegždienė shares that the Soviet regime was a completely different reality with different rules. All of the scientists were constantly monitored and interrogated over the tiniest details of their lives.
‘Imagine, they bring us some cosmic material – specimens that just come from space. Everything is put into a refrigerator with a lock that is sealed. Then a Soviet security guard from the Institute arrives, he takes the seal off and at the end of the day he seals the lock again. Theatre of the absurd!’
At the time, the ESA, NASA and the Soviet Union ran astrobotanical experiments. It was a part of the Space Race. Except, the Soviets kept everything they dida strict secret. The scientific resources were not even available to Dr Švegždienė’s team. They were only able to gather information from publicly available sources such as NASA’s databases or fundamental botanical research.
Prof Merkys represented the team at international conferences, where he could access useful literature for the experiments. The problem was, he didn’t share it.
‘He was the sole receiver of information, and shared it according to his own wishes. Maybe it’s hard to believe now, but it was common practice during Soviet times. We didn’t even know if the plants were actually in space. We had to deliver our devices to Moscow and then collect them from Moscow. It was both good and bad. The lack of information motivated us to be more creative’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Lost in Reforms
Before Lithuania regained its independence, Dr Švegždienė went through difficult times – dealing with family issues, while bringing up kids and writing her PhD thesis.
‘It was rough. I was only able to defend my thesis in 1991. After that, I thought – OK, so what’s next? My lab started pushing me to a more “practical” field, it was like… there was nothing left for me to do with what I started in astrobotany. No funding for the research, nothing’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Luckily, Prof Merkys and Dr Laurinavičius started collaborating with the University of Bonn in Germany who were also interested in astrobotany. The ESA and NASA were hardly collaborating at all by that point; the German Space Agency didn’t have rockets or orbital stations; thus, they needed Russian spaceships to take their experiments to space. ‘The last mutual gravitropism (a process of differential growth by a plant in response to gravity pulling on it) study was conducted in 1996. For instance, we did very short autonomous experiments with cress seedlings to explore how their roots and stalks react to different strengths of gravity. We received many acknowledgements from the scientific community’, says Dr Švegždienė.
In 1996 reforms of the scientific institutions in Lithuania began, signalling a long period of uncertainty for Dr Švegždienė. She spent most of her time analysing previously collected data and publishing academic articles. She says it takes a lot of time and effort, but science to her is ‘like life – a long game’. Meanwhile, Prof Merkys and Dr Laurinavičius retired, the funding was cut again, and many people were fired. This period ended somewhere around the 2000s.
‘When both of the initiators of space botany retired, they didn’t care about the fate of our lab. So, my colleague and I took matters into our own hands. We succeeded in attracting some funding and even started thinking about the possibility for Lithuania to join the ESA’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Dr Švegždienė’s lab was the only astrobotanical lab in the Baltic States. She visited her first international conference in 2005 and remembers how many people were surprised that the lab was still active. At that time Dr Švegždienė was collaborating with physicists to improve the clinostat centrifuge with semiconductor illuminators to find out if that would affect the plants.
‘We had one interesting project with cucumber seeds. When they germinate, they let out a little hook-like root. The development of the hook is also related to gravity. We wanted to check again – how much gravity is necessary for the hook to develop properly. This project also received funding, and was also super interesting to work on. But three years passed and the funding was over, and I was again uncertain as to what would happen next’, explains Dr Švegždienė.
Another reform of the scientific institutions began. In 2010, the Botanical Institute became part of The Nature Research Centre.
‘I was left alone, like the Last of the Mohicans. My colleague, who helped me run the lab and look for funding, passed away. I saw no purpose in starting new projects in the absence of long term funding. Proper science, as I said, takes time. I decided to close the lab’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Making Astrobotany Cool Again
Dr Švegždienė closed the lab in 2015. She had around a year to take care of the documents and the equipment.
‘I didn’t want to throw away the equipment. It was history. My husband and I brought everything home, I called various archives and museums asking them to take the artefacts but received no response. By another lucky accident I was on a guided tour at the Lithuanian Museum of Ethnocosmology in Molėtai, and the guide was showing equipment received from Ukraine and so on… And I was like – wait, I have something Lithuanian. Long story short, I donated everything to the Museum. It’s very important to me. I was a little disappointed at first that nobody cared enough to acquire the equipment’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Dr Švegždienė explains that when the exhibition in Molėtai opened she started receiving more and more attention from the media and the public.
‘When Lithuania regained independence, we were sucked into projects; we needed to survive to keep the lab going. No time left for communication. I also didn’t want to talk about what had already passed. And it felt weird to talk about projects that we developed together with the Soviets. So, the exhibition helped bring astrobotany to the centre of attention again’, says Dr Švegždienė.
Not long ago, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins harvested fresh radishes on board the International Space Station. Dr Švegždienė continues to keep track of everything that is going on in astrobotany.
‘I’m so happy to see that what we were dreaming about 40 or 30 years ago, is now possible. The progress is so rapid. What used to take us years can now be done in a couple of days or even hours’, says Dr Švegždienė.
I asked her what experiment she would choose to conduct if she had the technology and knowledge available today…
‘Oooh… I know exactly what I’d do! I’ve got a dream to test my baby – clinostat – using modern technologies. I would like to check what happens with the specimens at a microscopic level from the very beginning’, says Dr Švegždienė.
According to Dr Švegždienė her job was not only scientific; it also required a lot of creativity and imagination.
‘Most of our devices looked like they were from sci-fi movies’, she laughs, ‘We had to build things that had never been made before.’
‘I look at the night sky and think – what’s going on there? A very scientific approach, I know. I dedicated my life and my heart to that. I never counted hours, never struggled… You know, despite all of the challenges, I’ve lived an interesting and happy life. I would never change anything’, Dr Švegždienė concluded the interview with her dog snoring in the background.
Goda Raibytė is a freelance science journalist and communicator, TV & radio host, speaker at stimulating events, soon-to-be author of a book about the search for extraterrestrial life, and a proud advocate for secularism and reason.
Danguolė Švegždienė is a doctor of biological sciences. In 1973 she started working at the Laboratory of Plant Physiology at the Lithuanian Institute of Botany. In 1984 Dr Švegždienė and a team of scientists became the first in the world to grow a plant from seed to seed in space. Dr Švegždienė is a co-author of 22 experiments performed by plant physiologists of the Lithuanian Institute of Botany in spacecraft and orbital stations. She has published about 60 scientific articles, and participated in scientific conferences in France, Germany, Belgium.
- A. J. Merkys, R. S. Laurinavičius and D. V. Svegždienė ‘Plant growth. Development and embryogenesis during Salyut-7 flight’, Advances in Space Research, 1984.