SIUE biology professor collaborates with Ohio University professor to study plants in space

Biologists could soon know how plants react to a lack of gravity due to an experiment biology professor Darron Luesse will conduct with Ohio University professor Sarah Wyatt with the assistance of a nearly $400,000 grant from NASA.

Photo courtesy of Darron Luesse

The research, according to Luesse, will help understand basic biology, such as how plants sense gravity and why.

“They have all these cellular signals that occur that let them respond to the environment…,” Luesse said. “Gravity’s like this constant force that governs their architecture, the direction their branches grow…”

The first year of research under the two-year grant will consist of setting up the experiment and refining methods, but by the end of that year, Luesse said they hope to send the experiment to the International Space Station.

“Since NASA has retired their space shuttle it’s a little bit unclear,” Luesse said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of other countries taking things up there…”

The plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, more commonly known as Arabidopsis, is the “number one model organism for plants” and will be used in the experiment. Luesse said Arabidopsis is to plants what the fruit fly is to animals.

“It has no agricultural value whatsoever,” Luesse said. “[You] don’t make clothes out of it. The flowers are not pretty. You can’t eat it and you can’t smoke it… The good thing about it is it has a really tiny genome and we know the entire sequence of the genome.”

Having that information makes this experiment possible, according to Luesse.

Luesse and Wyatt will put roughly 1,300 Arabidopsis seeds, which are about the size of a grain of sand, into a petri dish that is secured in a BRIC, or biological research in canisters, then flown to space. Once in space, the seeds germinate and grow in the petri dish.

“While on board, the crew will add some fixative after they’ve grown for about five days… to freeze them in time, basically,” Luesse said, “and then they’ll get put in a freezer and hang out there until they fly back to earth and we will take them out of the petri dish, extract protein RNA from them and then send the protein off to be sequenced since there’s companies that do this kind of thing.”

Specifically, Luesse is working with proteomics and genomics. Proteomics is the study of protein structure and functions on a larger scale, while genomics looks at all of an organism’s genes.

“We’re looking at all the proteins [the plants are] turning on and this will kind of give us a clue as to how plants deal with not having gravity,” Luesse said. “Are they going to turn on proteins that are involved in stress responses?”

Once finding out that information, Luesse said they can compare the result and the sets of proteins activated when responding to gravity and conduct more experiments.

The next step, according to Luesse, is to use bioinformatics, which is a process of using computers to make gene networks, to look at which proteins the plant activates and align those proteins with the genes that are activated.

“Then [we will] also align them with what we know about proteins and genes being turned on and off on earth under different gravity conditions and try to figure out which ones control the other ones,” Luesse said.

That process is called bioinformatics, and Luesse said it is completed using computers to make the gene networks. Lastly, any genes Luesse and Wyatt discover will be studied more, which would involve attempting to create mutations or “knock out their function” to determine what happens to a plant when the protein does not work.

“The hope is that we learn enough about these things and then we get some specific genes that we can look at then we fly another experiment, maybe answer some more questions….,” Luesse said.

While people currently live on the International Space Station, Luesse said if people are sent to other planets to live for “any extended period of time,” they will have to bring plants with them for oxygen and food.

However, scientists do not know how plants will respond to that type of atmosphere. Just as humans are used to the earth’s gravity – what Luesse called “white noise in the background” – plants have the same perception.

Luesse said people have conducted experiments like his on earth “for a long time,” but by conducting the experiment in space, he can have a “no-gravity control.”

“When there’s no gravity, you kind of see what happens in the absence of it…,” Luesse said. “Plants are also going to be really important in space when you think about sustained life off of earth.”

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