Dr. Darron Luesse, associate professor of biological sciences.
It’s the ultimate location for a “no-gravity control” experiment — space.
When NASA launches its SpaceX Dragon rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 19, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville research project will be on board, traveling to the International Space Station.
The launch marks the end of the first of a two-year, nearly $400,000 NASA grant to Ohio University and SIUE. Darron Luesse, associate professor of biological sciences within the SIUE College of Arts and Sciences, is working in collaboration with Dr. Sarah Wyatt, OU professor of molecular biology/genomics. SIUE masters student Sarah Hutchinson has also played an integral role in the research. Additional SIUE undergraduate students will be involved in analyzing and confirming the data from the experiment.
The research focuses on how plants sense gravity, and how they respond to growing in its absence. It will observe the plants’ response on a cellular level by examining which proteins they choose to produce in space, compared to plants on Earth. It’s an analysis never before conducted on space-grown samples.
“I want to know how plants sense the environment around them, and then I want to know what they do with that information to change how they grow,” Luesse said.
“This is a unique opportunity for SIUE to participate in a NASA-funded study of the effects of gravity on plant growth, development and physiological processes,” said Jerry Weinberg, dean of the Graduate School. “It raises SIUE’s profile as an institution that can study plant protein expression in the most extreme environments, including space flight.”
Space offers two problematic elements this research will work to evaluate. First, plants don’t have gravity as a signal, which they use constantly on Earth to direct growth direction and the angle of their branches. Second, gases do not move around the same way they do on Earth due to that lack of gravity. This causes some parts of the plant to become starved of oxygen.
“From a plant’s point of view, gravity is a critical piece of information about where it is in the world — light is usually up, and water and nutrients are usually down — but a plant in space is missing that sense,” Luesse said. “They don’t do as well in this environment. We want to learn specifically why this happens, so that we can potentially address, through genetic engineering or growth practices, how to grow healthier plants in space.”
Luesse will travel to Florida to work with NASA engineers during the integration process as they prepare the research for flight. About 18,000 plant seeds will be aboard the rocket.
The plant being studied is Arabidopsis thaliana. It is “the number one model organism for plants.” Each seed is about the size of a grain of sand. A pre-weighed amount of seeds will fill individual petri dishes. Those petri dishes will be secured within a Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) module and stored in a refrigerator.
“When the seeds arrive at the Space Station, transfer to room temperature will induce germination. The crew will add some fixative after they’ve grown for about three days, essentially freezing them in time,” Luesse continued. “Then the plants will be placed in a freezer and remain there until they are brought back to Earth.”
While the seeds are growing at the International Space Station, identical control plants will be grown on Earth. Upon their scheduled return at the end of January, protein will be extracted from both sets of plants and sent for proteomic sequencing.
Luesse said the differences between the ground and space flight samples will provide information regarding which proteins plants make more of in space and which ones they stop producing. Data collected will identify candidates for further study and prove beneficial for both long-term space travel and agricultural output on Earth.
“Any time we’re going to have a manned space flight in deep space, this could be to Mars, it could be farther, any prolonged space flight is going to require living plants both for food and oxygen production,” Luesse said.
“We also hope to have Earth-based benefits as well. If plants can grow up instead of out, we can fit more in the same area without them crowding. So any time we can learn how plants use gravity to influence their architecture, we could use that information to help agriculture and overall output.”
NASA’s SpaceX Dragon rocket is scheduled to launch at 12:20 p.m. Friday from the Kennedy Space Center. The rocket is scheduled to return from the International Space Station at the end of January.