SIUE biology professor sends seeds to space to analyze plant growth in microgravity

Last week, a collaboration between SIUE professor Darron Luesse, Ohio University professor Sarah Wyatt and NASA launched about 18,000 plant seeds into space.

Pictured above are Sarah Wyatt, Ohio University Professor of Plant Biology; Proma Basu, Ohio University Graduate Student; Sarah Hutchinson, SIUE Graduate Student; and Darron Luesse, SIUE Professor of Biological Sciences

Titled Proteomics Analysis of Arabidopsis Seedlings in Microgravity, this is part of a nearly $400,000 grant from NASA to discover the strategies plants use to cope with being in space.

“Space is a rough place to be for a plant,” Luesse said.  “They are missing gravity, which is a critical signal on earth that provides information about which direction to grow and the angles of their branches.  In addition, gases do not move the same way they do on earth, leading to roots being starved for oxygen.”

Luesse is trying to figure out which proteins plants employ to combat the problems of space.  “If we know how a plant is trying to fix the problem, maybe we can help it out.”

According to Luesse, these experiments are a continuation of NASA’s goal of extended space exploration, which will require plants for both food and oxygen production.

As an additional benefit, by understanding how plants grow without gravity in space, this work may lead to improved agricultural practices on earth.

“If you can make plants grow up instead of out, they take up less room and you can increase the amount of biomass per acre,” Luesse said.

Last Saturday, Jan. 10th, the SpaceX Dragon, carrying the experiment, launched into orbit at 3:47am ET.

On Monday, the capsule docked with the International Space Station, and on Tuesday, the crew induced germination of the seeds by moving them to room temperature.

After growing for about 72 hours, the plants were placed into the freezer on Friday and await their return to Earth, which should occur around Feb 10th.

The research team, including SIUE graduate student Sarah Hutchinson, will then analyze the RNA and protein content of the plants.

“As cool as it is to have my plants flying around in space,” Luesse said, “I’m really excited to get the results back.”

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