UF/IFAS scientists to conduct experiment on plants in space

March 11, 2014

{UPDATED: 3/14/14]

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Two University of Florida scientists will go to Kennedy Space Center March 16  30 for the launch of the SpaceX-3 Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, to send up and then monitor an experiment designed to help them understand biological functions in space.

These experiments are important queries into the concepts of where life can exist in the universe and what it takes to survive in space for longer periods of time.

After turning their samples over to SpaceX for launch, the researchers will travel to Glenn Research Center in Cleveland to remotely operate the Light Microscopy Module – an ISS research facility that allows scientists to conduct their experiments telemetrically from the ground.

Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul, faculty members in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ horticultural sciences department, will explore how spaceflight affects cells by examining how plants grow without gravity.

In earlier ISS experiments, Paul, a research associate professor in plant molecular genetics, and Ferl, a professor in molecular biology and director of UF’s Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research, found that spaceflight roots grew in a specialized pattern known as skewing, in which roots grew away from the shoots at an angle – rather than straight away from the shoot (like they do on Earth) or in a random pattern as one might envision would happen without gravity. Since the observations of Darwin, scientists believed skewing required gravity, Paul said. So, in the absence of gravity, they want to know what forces contribute to these distinctive growth patterns.      

The scientists will study the issue of plant growth and development in space in two ways. First, with the high-resolution images beamed down from the Light Microscopy Module on ISS as the plants grow, and second, by analyzing the plants after they are harvested and returned with the Dragon capsule in mid-April. They will also test the impact of light in root-skewing during orbit.

The experiment is sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Florida-based national organization responsible for promoting science on the ISS.

“We are intrigued by the numerous light-sensing genes that are expressed specifically in roots in orbit, and the SpaceX-3 experiment will further explore the role of these genes in orientation and cellular remodeling,” Paul said. “It is likely that light plays a more important role in root growth in microgravity than it does on Earth.”

And that has big implications for life somewhere other than Earth, Ferl said.

“This is telling us that life utilizes special, potentially unique signals to adapt to living off planet,” he said. “This has tremendous implications for the expansion of human existence, beyond, to other worlds, but also richly informs us about the potential for plants to adapt to unusual environmental changes here on Earth.”