From Canada to the Cosmos: The 2 Black Holes of Controlled Environment Plant Research

Mike Dixon, Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at U of G and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor takes us on an agricultural odyssey – from the precision sensor technology necessary for biological life support and the transfer of knowledge to the agri-food sector, to a celebratory toast with Scotch whiskey on the Moon

Posted: Oct 25, 2023

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Mike Dixon Blog University of Guelph

Mike Dixon, Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at U of G and Bioenterprise SIAC Advisor takes us on an agricultural odyssey – from the precision sensor technology necessary for biological life support and the transfer of knowledge to the agri-food sector, to a celebratory toast with Scotch whiskey on the Moon

By Tabitha Caswell for Bioenterprise

Mike Dixon’s arrival to this point in time can be equally attributed to chance fortuity and relentless determination. With a tenure spanning over 38 years in plant research and controlled environments, his unparalleled expertise underscores the role he plays as a thought leader, not only here in Canada, but around the world.

From the forests of New Brunswick to the infinite expanse of space, Mike has accumulated a payload of knowledge too hefty to unpack in one sitting. Here, however, this visionary takes us on a flyby, just close enough to probe the surface of his work.

Terrestrial Teachings from Trees

Deep within the dense woodlands of northern New Brunswick, young Mike Dixon was born into the business of forestry. Working alongside his father and brothers, from pulp cutting to fire surveillance, he took many of his early life lessons from trees. This impactful immersion made him a student of nature, chasing an insatiable curiosity that would span continents and beyond.

Dixon blazed an impressive academic trail, beginning at Mount Allison University, where he received a “peerless” master’s degree, as the sole graduate student in the entire institution. He then earned a PhD through the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, before completing a post-doc at the University of Toronto. Lured by the Horticultural Science department at the University of Guelph (U of G) Mike finally landed in Ontario.

Years of studying plant physiology and biophysics, enhanced by a keen knack for technical tinkering, contributed to Mike’s unique skill set – one geared naturally for his next pivotal step.

In the 1980s, when the newly minted Canadian Space Agency (CSA) hosted an open call for experts, Mike seized the opportunity. Pitching plants as the linchpin for interstellar life support, he soon found himself designing and building the first controlled environment greenhouse facility on the U of G campus. Here, as the pursuit of celestial travel became a global focus, Mike’s research began to orbit around solving the fundamental problems of growing plants in space, while also illuminating the terrestrial applications in earthly agriculture.

As a long-time and key member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) with Bioenterprise and Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) in Guelph, Ontario, Dixon continues to guide the next generation of innovators toward not only commercialization, but to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.


Plants: Our Universal Key for Survival

In the extreme environment of space, life hinges on a vital concept – biological life support. It’s the complex process of converting gases to breathable air, recycling water and other resources, and most crucially, producing food. At the core of this life-sustaining process are plants, nature’s best bioengineers.

“Biological life support, the production of food from plants, is an absolute requirement,” Mike says. “The ability to grow plants in space will determine how far from Earth we can go and how long we can stay. So, it is a fundamental requirement that we develop all the science and technologies to reliably and successfully do it.”

Enter the CESRF at the University of Guelph. This facility stands as a hub of innovation, pioneering research that delves deep into the intricacies of controlled environments. Here, every variable, from light to humidity, is meticulously calibrated to test the thresholds and create the optimal conditions for plant growth, both in the cosmos and on our home planet.

You see, the vibrations of CESRF’s ground-breaking work are felt much closer to home. While the primary focus is on ensuring astronauts can venture further into space, the methods and tech born from this research have profound implications right here on Earth. From revolutionizing vertical farming to advancing the burgeoning cannabis industry, the controlled environment techniques honed for interstellar missions are reshaping terrestrial agriculture.

Since its inception, the CESRF has ascended to global prominence, becoming a leader in the world of biological life support research. The team’s relentless pursuit of knowledge not only charts the course for future space missions but also promises a greener, more sustainable future for Earth.

Simply put, as the CESRF reaches for the stars, it’s also ensuring that we don’t overlook the fertile grounds beneath our feet. How we feed a growing population and how we manage waste are problems shared, regardless of where we dwell in the universe.

Zero Waste, Infinite Impact

In the vastness of space, waste isn’t just a minor inconvenience – it’s a potential threat to survival. According to Mike, “When you go to space you can’t throw anything away; on the International Space Station, they send garbage back to Earth because there isn’t yet technology on the station to recycle anything other than water. So, when you go to the Moon and Mars, you can’t have a garbage dump outside because all the resources that you use for exploration are those resources that are part of your life support. So, all the carbon, oxygen, water, and nitrogen must be recycled.”

This stark reality emphasizes the criticality of perfect recycling in space. Every ounce of every resource, from the air we breathe to the water we drink, becomes invaluable. The very idea of discarding becomes a deal-breaker, as every element must be meticulously recycled to ensure the success and safety of space missions.

Profoundly, the innovations emerging from these space challenges have significant implications right here on Earth. Industry collaborators recognize the potential terrestrial applications, especially in the agri-food sector.

Here, we sit at the event horizon of black hole #1. The quest to develop impeccable recycling algorithms and sensor technology for space translates to pioneering sustainable practices on our home planet. As Mike puts it, “The biggest technical black hole in greenhouse technology today is the capability to recycle the hydroponic nutrient solution, while still maintaining its quality – indefinitely. But as we incrementally advance, this technology will become available.”

Black Hole #1: Limitations of Sensor Technology

Sensor technology is the backbone of controlled environments, employing highly sensitive, advanced equipment to measure and maintain precise environmental conditions. From the spectrum of light to atmospheric pressure, every detail is calibrated to foster optimal plant growth.

Twenty years ago, Mike and his colleagues posed a central question for space exploration: “How low can we take pressure, alter the atmospheric composition, and still keep plants alive to provide life support?”

Cara Wehkamp’s 2005 research answered this question, using hypobaric chambers to assess plants under reduced pressures. Results of the study were insightful: plants flourished at just 10% of Earth’s atmosphere, with about 70% oxygen and minimal CO2. Hooray! In plain language, this discovery was worth celebrating. If the study had revealed otherwise, the reality of space travel would have been – daunting.

So, we know that plants, the key for our survival, will not restrict human space travel. Incremental research discoveries with precision sensor technology combined with advanced waste management techniques give promise, while proving valuable when transferred laterally to applications here at home.

Transfer of Space Tech to Earthly Sectors

Seduced by the siren of space? You’re not alone – humans naturally long to solve the most challenging mysteries of life. But even as the ultimate goal of this research is space exploration and settlement, it’s also no surprise that the Moon and Mars represent a very niche market. So, while it’s important to step back and examine this work through a lens of practicality, it can also be tempting for uninformed parties to dismiss it as a frivolous indulgence.

Entrepreneurs, however, recognize the very valuable commercialization opportunities that lie in its terrestrial applications. This includes vertical farming, cannabis cultivation, and other medicinal plants. The technology developed for space has already successfully transferred to these sectors, and Mike points out a few examples for context.

CESRF has collaborated with the Norwegian company, Intravision since 2010. As many companies within the vertical farming sector have fallen since then, Intravision has managed to strategically reinvent itself, evolving from an LED lighting supplier to a turnkey vertical farm supplier. Headquartered in Oslo with offices in Toronto and Shanghai, the company supports client projects in Canada and internationally. Through consistent growth, they stand as an example of success in the vertical farming sector.

A collaboration with Mucci Farms, a multi-generational greenhouse powerhouse, is a testament to the adaptability of space technology for terrestrial food production. The team is currently in an advanced phase of prototyping systems. According to Mike, their success is directly attributed to “exploiting the tech solutions we’ve achieved in the space program and deploying them for projects to grow food here on Earth.”

Sponsored by the Weston Family Foundation, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge is an initiative designed to directly address the erratic supply-demand issues of the Canadian berry market. Successfully navigating the initial phase, the CESRF team is currently in the “shepherd phase,” focusing on prototyping technology to enable year-round strawberry production. “Our proposed solution aims to stabilize the availability of strawberries throughout the year,” Mike says, adding, “If we can pull it off, we’ll probably win the Nobel Prize!”

Beyond food, technology emerging from the work at CESRF is also directly transferring to pharmaceuticals.

The Phyto-Pharmaceutical Wormhole

In the pursuit of medicinal advancements, recent focus has shifted away from synthetic drugs to the phyto-pharmaceutical sector, extending beyond just cannabis to encompass a wider range of medicinal plants. While these plants hold promise, they also pose challenges due to inconsistencies. Translation: plants are living organisms, sensitive to small changes, and it’s hard to control their growth to produce consistent results. This is where the work at CESRF shines.

Mike highlights a notable collaboration with PlantForm. This company innovated a process wherein an agrobacterium carrying a genetic blueprint is vacuum infiltrated into a tobacco plant. This enables the plant to produce a biologic monoclonal antibody, or protein, called Herceptin – a powerful breast cancer drug. Intriguingly, Mike notes the striking irony in using tobacco plants, typically linked with health hazards, to generate a life-saving cancer medication.

Success aside, standardization remains an obstacle in this field. But the team at CESRF is making strides through implementation of their ground-breaking technology. Mike says, “This comes easily to us because we’ve spent the last 25 years attempting to standardise the profile of nutritional compounds in plants.”

On a lighter note, Dixon shares a story of a goal that, after spanning decades, may soon be realized. For him (and others), this could perhaps be considered “medicinal” as well.

Lunar Libations

To recount the story accurately, we need to start at the beginning.

You see, like many of us Mike has a bucket list, and his is nothing short of celestial. Due to impracticalities, he was forced to abandon his original dream of growing a rose on the Moon, so he set his sights on barley. Why barley, you ask?

Well, in cultures around the world, humans have maintained their obsession with turning plants into alcohol throughout history. Inevitably, this cultural craft will follow us into space – and Mike is determined to see it happen.

Back in 1995, Dixon was the Canadian delegate on the international Candidate Crop Selection Committee as they short-listed potential plants in space. He proposed barley, humorously arguing the cultural value of our ancient relationship with alcohol. And what’s better than single malt Scotch, especially with Mike’s Scottish heritage? Fast forward a few years – and long-story short – thanks to some clever persuasion, barley is officially on the space exploration list.

Mike’s passion project even took him to Scotland, where he convinced The Glenlivet distillery to send their barley seeds to space, testing their resilience. The end-goal? To produce the first-ever space Scotch. Look for it in the very near future!

Obviously, barley has other practical uses, so the team at CESRF has been backed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and in collaboration with aerospace company, Canadensys, to make this dream a reality. Roses might not have worked out, but Mike’s bucket list item of barley on the Moon is very much alive. Cheers to that!

While the idea of imbibing in a tasty lunar libation is a fun one, we cannot overlook the serious work and astonishing accomplishments that Mike Dixon and his team have achieved over the years – a direct reflection of Canada’s investment.

Black Hole #2: Funding Canada’s Leadership

Recent momentum in the field of life support in space arises from a realization: reaching celestial bodies is one thing; sustaining life there is another. Over the last three decades, Canada has taken the lead in this research.

We come by our leadership honestly. Our agricultural challenges, particularly in our harsh climates, have made us adept at devising solutions for extreme conditions. As Mike wittily notes, “After the Moon, Yellowknife’s snowbanks are the next toughest place for plant growth.”

And just as we’ve become an innovator in space exploration and life support, Canada is poised to lead in high-density food production on Earth as well. The shift from traditional farming to integrating AI, automation, and robotics is not just imminent but essential.

Canada’s treasure trove of knowledge in controlled agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds since 1995, highlighting both successes and lessons learned. This expertise is our unique selling point. So, what’s holding us back from reaching our full potential here? Black hole #2: funding.

In short, backing space exploration isn’t just about cosmic ambitions; it’s about fortifying Canada’s economy. With a fresh injection of much-needed funding, there is no limit to where this country can go in the sector.

Mike explains that critics who argue against funding biological life support research don’t see the big picture. “It would be a source of revenue and taxes, to build roads and schools and hospitals in Canada. The investment in high-tech research, especially in agriculture, is a remarkable economic engine for a country like Canada,” he says.

We have the best minds and we’ve accumulated an extremely robust breadth of knowledge – we just need the money to take it further.

Global Collaborations at CESRF

As with many areas of research, space exploration, funding, and collaboration walk hand-in-hand toward progress. It’s nearly impossible to move forward alone. As Mike explains, “The perception of funding agencies is that the broader the scope of collaboration, the better. They use it as a metric to evaluate proposals, and because of this, collaborative interactions are fostered.” 

Although some partnerships will never be as productive as others, many do drive progress in the right direction. The University of Guelph’s CESRF has become a global meeting place, an epicenter for biological life support research. After the establishment of the Space in Advanced Life Support Agriculture (SALSA) program in 1995, its prominence has drawn partnerships with giants like the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and of course the CSA, where greenhouse tech has been transferred to the Arctic.

“These collaborative interactions have created and sustained the myth around our program,” Mike Says. He points backward to a big bang moment: a $10 million boost the program received between 2000-2005 as the notable timestamp for this success. Around the same time, NASA was winding down plant research due to its aging infrastructure, so it began sending teams to Guelph. Over the years the CESRF has evolved into a remarkable venue. 

The timing of that funding, matched with Mike Dixon’s leadership, has proven a sound investment. “That initial shot in the arm we received would be roughly equivalent to $30 million today,” he points out. This investment magnetized them, pulling in teams like NASA and beyond for joint ventures. It proudly stands as a global hub, catalyzing innovation for the future of space exploration.

Opportunities in Space Exploration

The business of space offers boundless possibilities with unexplored problems and mysteries to solve. The horizon is bright – with the development of tech for survival both on and off the planet.

“The list of homework assignments is enormous!” Mike says, adding that anyone entering the field will “have a job forever.” Prospective students will be at the forefront of innovation. For funders, investing in CESRF means shaping the destiny of space exploration and our food and agriculture system at the same time. And for companies, the program is a nebula of talent, producing experts ready to lead and innovate.

The University of Guelph’s CESRF stands out as a vanguard, dedicated to the global mission of biological life support. Canada’s contribution toward a common, international goal should not go unrecognized. And as we look ahead, the stage is set to sustain the next several decades of research and development.

As we reflect on the accomplishments of Mike and his team, we can confidently and simultaneously turn our attention to the future, where Canada has made its mark on the world…and beyond.


Media Contacts:

Tabitha Caswell, Content Writer, Bioenterprise Canada

Jordan Sidsworth, Marketing Specialist, Bioenterprise Canada 

About Bioenterprise Canada

Bioenterprise is Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, a national agri-technology focused commercialization accelerator. Bioenterprise uses its 20 years of industry experience and a global network of experts, mentors, funders, researchers, and industry partners to help small and medium-sized agri-food businesses connect, innovate and grow.

About CESRF, University of Guelph

The Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and its Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture program are an essential part of Canada’s contributions to plant research and development for space and closed environment related activities. 

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