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Corn Grown in Caves: The Future of Farming?

PHOTO: Purdue professor Cary Mitchell and other researchers developed a technique that could allow some crops to be grown in caves or mines. Photo courtesy of Purdue University.
PHOTO: Purdue professor Cary Mitchell and other researchers developed a technique that could allow some crops to be grown in caves or mines. Photo courtesy of Purdue University.
May 19, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – Forget the field – caves and mines could hold the future of farming. Researchers from Purdue University have discovered that lowering temperatures for two hours each day reduces the height of corn crops without affecting their seed yield.

It's a technique that could be used to grow crops in controlled environments. Purdue Horticulture Professor Cary Mitchell explains isolated and enclosed environments also can stop genetically-modified pollen and seed from spreading.

"We don't want to get these so-called 'GMO crops' out into the environment," says Mitchell. "So, by doing it in a cave – or in a mine, or even a warehouse – you have one layer of containment there."

Mitchell and other researchers installed an insulated growth chamber with yellow and blue lamps in a former limestone mine in Marengo, Ind., to grow the corn. By cooling the temperature of the space, they were able to reduce the corn plant's stalk height without affecting the number and weight of its seeds.

Abandoned mines can be prime locations for growing because their natural coolness reduces the need to ventilate the heat produced by lamps. According to Mitchell, there are other places in the state that would also work well, partly for their carbon dioxide (CO2) content.

"Down in southern Indiana, it's limestone, and the atmosphere tends to be very high in CO2 around the plants," says Mitchell. "Since plants use CO2 in photosynthesis, that's a way of enhancing that environment."

Mitchell adds the technique could be particularly useful for growing genetically modified crops processed into medicine and pharmaceuticals.

"The way medicinals are made now is a very expensive process in the laboratory using mammalian cell cultures," he explains. "It's slow, and it's very, very expensive. By using plants to do it, you harness the natural energy of sunlight."

The study was published in the journal Industrial Crops and Products.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IN