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Boldly Going... Again

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Rocketing plants into space seeks outcomes for Earths farmers and future space explorers
Plant in Space
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The weightlessness of space is beckoning Elison Blancaflor one more time.

Blancaflor, Ph.D., principal investigator and professor at Noble Research Institute, and his team - Jin Nakashima, Ph.D., Yuhong Tang, Ph.D. and Alan Sparks - are preparing to launch another round of Arabidopsis (thale cress) seedlings into outer space. This is the second time in less than three years that the researchers have been awarded a grant to work with NASA. Only this time, instead of launching his experiment into space via the space shuttle Discovery, Blancaflor will see his work taken aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for two weeks, building on research he began with NASA in 2010.

"This is our second round of space flight experiments on plants. One of the major expectations of this experiment is to understand how microgravity - or a lack of gravity - impacts plant development," said Blancaflor of the work funded by a three-year, $471,000 grant from NASA.

NASA's reasoning for rocketing plants into space may sound like the plot of a science fiction novel, but actually is a problem in need of a practical solution. "NASA and the space agencies of various countries around the world fund this type of research because they have an ambitious goal of creating advanced life support systems for long-term space colonization during the eventual exploration of deep space," Blancaflor said. "In these advanced space habitats, plants would, of course, be an important component. Before they could be effectively utilized, however, we need to understand the biology of how plants develop in space."

The experiment has implications for enhancing agricultural productivity here on Earth as well. Blancaflor hopes to better understand root development and cell wall structure, building off the findings generated from his laboratories first experiment in space.

The current experimental journey will again focus on Arabidopsis, a model plant commonly used in the science world because much is known about its biology. "There are a lot of experimental protocols for this plant, a lot of work already done where one can make good comparisons between experiments on earth and those in the unique environment of space," Blancaflor said. "Plus, my lab actually works on Arabidopsis because basic studies on this plant guide us in making informed decisions affecting agriculturally relevant crops."

The familiarity with Arabidopsis is crucial because Blancaflor already has information from their 2010 experiments on the space shuttle that plant growth in space will spur changes in the expression of genes. That experiment sent more than 1,000 Arabidopsis seedlings into space inside hardware called Biological Research in Canisters (BRICs) with the simple goal of observing how the absence of gravity impacted root development and related gene expression.

"We know from those experiments that more than 800 genes changed expression in space," he said. "Some of the genes that changed controlled the development of the plant cell wall. The cell wall of a plant is important because it allows the plant to grow upright. We also discovered some novel root growth behaviors that typically would be masked or covered by the constant gravitational force on Earth."

Some of the genes that changed during spaceflight present targets important for NASA to engineer new plant varieties better adapted to space and thus fulfill its plans for deep space exploration. With regard to more practical benefits, this knowledge has the potential to improve growth in earth-bound agricultural crops.

"Here on Earth, there's always gravity," Blancaflor said. "Sometimes when you use the unique environment that space provides, you start to uncover things that may not have been realized here on Earth. Hopefully, there is a way to use this knowledge to generate plants with better root systems, alter cell walls so a plant can grow better, or be used more efficiently for renewable energy." While Blancaflor and his team made significant findings during their 2010 space shuttle experiments, their results led to many more questions about the impact of growing plants in space and the related effects on expression of their genes. The 2010 results must also be replicated and validated to be accepted by the scientific community. That's something they hope to achieve from the ISS experiment.

This time around, Arabidopsis will be grown on a different type of hardware, an Advanced Biological Research System (ABRS) that will allow the team to acquire a more detailed time resolution of root growth in space. To accomplish this, a camera will take pictures of root growth, recording at regular intervals during the two weeks that the seedlings will be aboard the space station. The new methods will offer a chance to analyze gene expression and cell wall changes in the plant, so the researchers could have a deeper understanding of the molecular basis of plant development in space.

Although Blancaflor's seedlings aren't set to launch until July 2013, preparations have already started. For almost the entire month of October, the Noble team will travel to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for a science verification test (SVT). In February 2013, they will return to KSC for a payload verification test (PVT). The SVT and KSC for a payload verification test ( are dress rehearsals for the experiments.

"We take the SVT and PVT very seriously," Blancaflor said. "Without a successful SVT and PVT, there is no flight experiment." The delivery system for Blancaflor's seedlings to space will be a new experience. The space shuttles are no longer an option with their retirement this year so transportation to the ISS will come through commercial rockets.

Space Explorations Technology (Space X), a private spacecraft manufacturer based in California, was awarded a contract by NASA to develop next generation space vehicles to replace the space shuttle. Blancaflor's research is scheduled for transport aboard the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on Space X's third resupply mission to the ISS. That mode of transportation is another unknown for Blancaflor, something else to worry about and to be excited over.

"This is a new era in space research," he said. "It is exciting to be one of the first groups of researchers to use commercial rockets to take experiments to the ISS. And we're excited about how this research can ultimately lead to agricultural benefits here on Earth. Also because kids and students are often excited by space, we are hopeful that this research could inspire next generation scientists."