The Evolution of Hydroponics

Did you know you can grow plants without soil?

The method is called hydroponic, a Latin word that means working water.  Although historians believe that the evolution of hydroponics started with the ancient Babylonians and their hanging gardens, it was John Woodward, in 1699, who became the first documented scientist to successfully grow plants using hydroponics.

Photograph shows a dark haired woman standing between rows of hydroponically grown plants.

John Woodward

An etching of the scientist John Woodward

John Woodward was born in 1665 in Derbyshire, United Kingdom.  At the age of 16, he became an apprentice to a linen draper in London, and then later he learned about medicine from Dr. Peter Barwick, who was a doctor for King Charles II.   While studying medicine, Woodward found a fascination with fossils that eventually led him to his work with plants.

In 1699, Woodward published his hydroponics experiments with spearmint. He tested different types of soil mixed with the water, and he learned plants with a less-pure water source grew better than plants grown in purely distilled water.  Woodward concluded that certain substances with minerals in the water encouraged plant growth. This is how the evolution of hydroponics began.

Hydroponics in Space

A man's finger touch a hydroponically grown radish

Woodward’s research led other scientists to establish that water is absorbed by plant roots that pass through the stem system.  Then the water escapes into the air through the pores of leaves.  Additionally, plant roots get minerals from soil or water, and their leaves draw carbon dioxide from the air while their roots take up oxygen.

Armed with these discoveries, NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration project is preparing for a future on the Moon, Mars and other uninhabited planets. They are learning and perfecting the food-growing method of hydroponics, and are finding great success with vegetables, such as lettuce, onions and radishes. Through this project, scientists are learning how astronauts could grow crops that would provide healthy foods. They are also learning how hydroponics can remove toxic carbon dioxide from the air inside the astronaut’s space vehicle, and create oxygen to help them survive in space.

NASA scientist checks on hydroponically grown onions, lettuce and radishes.

NASA scientists also are investigating how different amounts of three factors – light, temperature and carbon dioxide – affect plant growth. Another factor is the species and variety of plants.  STEMists becoming experts at hydroponic gardening could make big strides in the science world and may find themselves growing gardens in space someday!

Botany as a Career

STEMists interested in plant life might consider botany as a career.  A botanist studies microorganisms and trees like giant sequoias, algae, fungi, mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants. A botanist may also be called a plant biologist, biochemist, biophysicist or microbiologist.

Three men photograph and examine a botany specimen on the ground.

Botanists have many different areas they can focus their studies on. For examples, they might concentrate on studying what pollution does to plant life and work toward protecting the environment. Other botanists might use biotechnology to improve existing plant species, create new plant species or grow plants using a hydroponic farming system.

STEMists who want to become botanists can be on their way to doing research and investigations through the engineering design process found in monthly-themed Groovy Lab in a Box.  Check out the hydroponics box Water Works” for more groovy fun for future botanists!

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