Bio-dome imagines future of food in space

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AMES, Iowa — What will future space colonists eat in their long trek across the galaxies? A new bio-dome display at Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens looks into the future of farming in space.

The bio-dome is the main attraction in the Hughes Conservatory through Nov. 15 as part of Reiman Gardens’ space and science fiction theme this year.

Features plants and fish

The bio-dome features both plants and fish. Plants such as lettuce, basil, tomatoes, kohlrabi, mustard greens, sage, rosemary, cucumbers, pole beans and many others are grown with hydroponic technologies.

Fish, including Nile tilapia and redclaw crayfish, are grown with aquaculture technologies. The combined system is known as aquaponics.

The bio-dome helps visitors imagine challenges for space colonists, as well as future inhabitants on Earth who face limited supplies of water, nutrients and other natural resources that need to be managed in a sustainable manner.

The closed-loop, self-sustaining ecosystem provides protein and carbohydrates in the form of fish, vegetables and herbs.

The exhibit showcases research conducted by Iowa State University’s  Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach fisheries specialist Allen Pattillo.

Supported by a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Pattillo built an experimental aquaponics system in a campus greenhouse in 2013. He wanted to see how tilapia, native to the African tropics, fared in the Iowa climate.

Pattillo advised Reiman Gardens and helped install the exhibit. It features a 120-gallon tank for tilapia, one of the world’s fastest growing species of fish.

Fish waste provides nutrients for the vegetables and herbs, fed by continually circulating water in the system.

Visitors also can watch the playful antics of Australian redclaw crayfish grown for food, as an ornamental species and possible medical use for calcium supplements in repairing bone loss.

Soil-less plant systems

The exhibit demonstrates four types of soil-less plant systems. Two floating rafts hold plugs of lettuce and mustard greens. Tomatoes and herbs mature in individual Dutch pots, each connected to a water line.

Water also moves through a pyramid of plants custom-built from Nutrient Film Technique channels and five vertical towers, including one that travelers may have seen at O’Hare Airport’s urban aeroponic garden in Chicago.

Although the exhibit focuses on the future, Pattillo said a handful of commercial-scale aquaponics systems now operate in Iowa. His research has generated a lot of interest, and the Reiman Gardens exhibit, which opened April 15, already has increased the number of inquiries.

“People are enamored at the potential for these systems,” Pattillo said. “Many people want to know how much we could produce this way. We really don’t know, but we’re going to find out. Data collected from this exhibit will help us know what to expect from this type of agriculture in the future.”

Produce donated

Produce harvested from the exhibit will be donated to Plant-A-Row for the Hungry that serves Story County food pantries.
Although tilapia usually reaches market weight of about two pounds within six months, the fish will stay in the tanks for the duration of the exhibit.

The display is supported by equipment donations from FarmTek Growers Supply and a special project grant from the Leopold Center.

Technical planning and educational materials are from Iowa State University’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension and Iowa State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.

The Hughes Conservatory is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Reiman Gardens is located on a 17-acre site south of the Iowa State University Jack Trice Football Stadium, 1407 University Blvd., Ames.

More information

For more information about the exhibit, go to the Reiman Gardens website: www.reimangardens.com. More information and two photo galleries on aquaponics are on the Leopold Center website: www.leopold.iastate.edu.

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