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Bucking gravity
Study examines how plants can be grown more effectively on Earth - and maybe in space

Aug. 10, 2005
By Scott Hedrick. Photo illustration by Allison Lazard.

Scientists have been studying the effects of gravity since the 1600s when Sir Isaac Newton was hit in the head by malus communis, or the common red apple. It is now possible to explain why you shouldn't throw pennies from the top of the Empire State building, why your pants may fall down if you don't wear a belt, and how you are able to go outdoors without floating into space. But space is precisely where three "gravity-defying" students are taking their research.

Photo illustration by Allison Lazard.Ohio University seniors Andrew Dodd and Ryan King are studying the effects of gravity on mutant plants with Sarah Wyatt, assistant professor of environmental and plant biology. This research, initially funded by NASA, aims to explain how and why some plants, considered genetic mutants, react differently to gravity, and how these reactions can be used for beneficial purposes.

NASA was interested in the research because of its implications for growing plants in space and on other planets, Dodd says. If humans were to live in space, plants would be needed as food and oxygen producers.

While growing plants in space may seem light-years away, research at the Wyatt Lab has other practical applications.

As a result of this study, loved ones may enjoy their Valentine's Day flowers longer. Plants placed on their side have a tendency to buck gravity and bend upwards toward the sun, Wyatt says. Most flowers are shipped this way, and arrive bent or bend shortly after being placed in water. If the effects of gravity are better understood, it may be possible to genetically engineer straight plants that do not exhibit this "bending phenomenon."

This study also may affect dinner tables across the world.

"Our research will help the agricultural industry grow crops more effectively," Wyatt says. "This could, in turn, produce greater yields from harvests."

Exactly how do students at the Wyatt lab study gravity's effects?

First the lab purchases plants that have been genetically altered. The plants contain a synthetic DNA sequence, known as a tag, which falls randomly in the genetic makeup of the plant, creating a defect.

Though each plant contains a biological defect, often it will not exhibit any physical differences from a normal plant. It is up to the Wyatt lab researchers to test each plant individually and find specimens that physically react differently to gravity.

To do this, the students place the mutant plants on their side for an hour in a refrigerator. The temperature delays the plants' bending reaction which allows Wyatt and the students to examine the plants more closely.

The researchers are hoping that the plants will bend in an unconventional way. If this occurs, the plants' biological makeup must be examined to find out where the DNA tag fell that caused an unorthodox reaction. It is possible to determine the tag's exact location due to the Wyatt lab's choice of specimen, a plant known as Arabidopsis. "It's a scraggly little weed that is everywhere," she says. "I can probably find it, or some of its relatives, in your driveway."

While it may be a nuisance to homeowners, Arabidopsis is a valuable tool for plant biologists. Its entire genetic sequence, which is the smallest of all plants, has been completely mapped out, which makes it is possible to tell exactly what manipulations caused the plant to respond differently to gravity. Once this is known, the results may be transferred to other plants with more significant uses.

The students in Wyatt's lab each play an important role in the study.

Dodd is creating a collection of time-lapse movies of the plants while King screens for mutants.

Even though this research may produce exciting implications in several fields, it can become a bit tedious. "You have to be a good loser," laughs King, who helped test over 40,000 plants, of which only three reacted abnormally to the cold effect. "It takes a lot of persistence and determination, but I love it."

Scott Hedrick is a junior in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Allison Lazard is a senior in the School of Visual Communication.

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'Engage' A special edition of PerspectivesThis story will be featured in "Engage," a special Ohio University publication to be distributed this fall about undergraduate student research, scholarship and creative activity. Content for the magazine was produced by a special class of students from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and School of Visual Communication Spring Quarter. For more information about the project, contact Andrea Gibson at gibsona@ohio.edu.

Published: Aug 10, 2005 12:00:00 AM
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