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NASA project explores impact of gravity on plants

Natalia Radic | Mar 14, 2015

Illustration by Christina Ullman.

When NASA’s SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo rocket resupplied the International Space Station in January, its payload included two canisters of seedlings from Ohio University.

A team led by scientist Sarah Wyatt received a $380,000 grant from NASA to pinpoint the genes that control plant responses to gravity. The information could improve our understanding of how plants can be cultivated on long-term space missions.

Wyatt, graduate students Proma Basu and Marilyn Hayden, and collaborator Darron Luesse of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, will use the germinated seeds of Arabidopsis plants, which are part of the mustard family. By extracting the plants’ proteins, Wyatt will be able to pinpoint the exact genes that control response to gravity.

“Proteins are actually the work horses of biology,” says Wyatt, a professor of plant biology. “Some genes are regulators or switches that modify expression of others, so if we can find a ‘master regulator’ for gravity, that would be useful.”

The seeds were planted in a petri dish and placed in canisters, then germinated in space. After they sprout and grow a couple of days, the space station crew will apply a fixative that halts the growth process and put the seedlings in a freezer for a few days until they can be returned to Earth.

Using temperature and other environmental data sent to Earth from data loggers flown with the seedlings, Wyatt will replicate the experiment on a 48-hour delay.

The scientist has been working with NASA since 1996, but she still gets a thrill out of sending plants into orbit.

“Figuring out this basic biological question is so exciting,” she says. “Flight opportunity just ramps up that excitement.”