Last December I wrote about a mission to the moon that will involve growing plants to determine how they will perform in a lunar environment. That mission is still at least a year away. In the meantime, research involving plant growth in space continues onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Numerous experiments have been carried out so far with the general aim of observing the effects of microgravity and other extraterrestrial environmental factors on plant growth. The larger aim, of course, is to develop methods for growing food in space in order to feed future space travelers as they colonize other celestial bodies, such as the Moon and Mars. Providing oxygen and contributing to psychological well-being are additional benefits of growing plants in space.
Several weeks ago a spacecraft returned to Earth from ISS carrying samples and data from a variety of studies, including a plant study being carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Botany. The study consisted of three groups of Arabidopsis thaliana – a wild type group, a group with a gene involved in gravity sensing always turned on, and a group with that same gene always turned off. The plants were grown from seed on petri dishes, and the seedlings (totaling 1000 plants) were returned to Earth after a few weeks of growth. The petri dishes were placed in deep freeze upon returning to Madison. Eventually, RNA will be extracted from each of the plants and analyzed.
Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) that is commonly used in biological studies because it is fast growing with a short life cycle – it germinates, flowers, and produces seed in about 6 weeks – and it has a relatively small genome that has been completely mapped. This makes it ideal for studies like this one that aim to observe genes involved in responding to particular environmental factors – in this case microgravity.
Plants grown in the weightlessness of space get long, spindly, and weak. Plants grown on Earth in a protected environment without mechanical stresses like wind or rain are more susceptible to pests and diseases compared to those that are subject to such disturbances. It turns out that there is a gene that codes for a protein that senses gravity, and this same protein senses other mechanical stresses as well. This means that studies that help advance the science of growing plants in space could also help improve crop plants here on Earth.
The RNA extracted from the Arabidobsis plants recently returned from space will not only aid in the research being done at UW-Madison, but will also become part of a much larger body of research through NASA’s GeneLab. Access to space is limited, so GeneLab makes available the data recovered from studies like this one to anyone interested in doing studies of their own. The GeneLab will also make it possible to compare the Arabidopsis groups in this study to several other Arabidopsis ecotypes, which will aid in determining plants best suited for microgravity environments.