Noble scientists prep research for second space mission
Noble Foundation Principal Investigator Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D., and his team—Jin Nakashima, Ph.D., Yuhong Tang, Ph.D., and Alan Sparks—are boldly headed back to outer space. Well, at least, one of their experiments is headed back to the cosmos.
The Noble Foundation scientists are studying vital plant functions in near-zero gravity. The research focuses on how gravity affects cell development and root growth. On Earth, gravity not only helps to anchor plants but also orients plant growth and development for nutrient and water capture by roots, seedling emergence, and light absorption for photosynthesis in shoots—all of which have a considerable impact on agriculturally significant crops.
The Noble team hopes to uncover genes associated with these traits so that agricultural crops on Earth can be improved. “The best place to study gravity-related biological phenomena is in space where gravity is minimal,” Blancaflor said. “This provides the best experimental control to compare with Earth-grown plants where gravity is always present. We can see what gene activities change and then we know they are related to our target traits.”
For NASA, Blancaflor’s research could lead to understanding how plants develop in space. Plants are a vital component of regenerative life support systems, providing sources of oxygen and food if humans were to embark on long-term space missions. However, to effectively utilize plants in an enclosed life support system, it is important to better understand their biology in the microgravity environment of space.
“It is exciting to get a second shot at conducting plant experiments in space,” Blancaflor said. “Being able to do this twice in three years is remarkable.”
In 2010, the team’s first outer space research experiment culminated in successfully growing 14 petri dishes of Arabidopsis (thale cress) seedlings inside canisters (Biological Research in Canisters, where they were exposed to near weightlessness for almost two weeks on the Space Shuttle Discovery.
The current journey—funded by a second NASA grant (three years, $471,000)—will once again focus on Arabidopsis (a model plant used in many experiments), but the destination this time will be the International Space Station. The plants also will be grown on a different type of hardware, an Advanced Biological Research System 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 ISS. The new hardware will offer a chance to analyze gene expression and cell wall changes in the plant, so the researchers will have a deeper understanding of the molecular basis of plant development in space.
“Results from the 2010 experiments, showed that hundreds of plant genes changed expression in space,” Blancaflor said. “We hope to deepen that understanding in the more controlled environment of the ABRS hardware. In the end, this knowledge has the potential to improve what we know about how crops grow here on Earth.”
Although Blancaflor’s experiments are not set to launch until November of 2013, preparations have already begun. The Noble team traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida multiple times in October 2012 for a science verification test. In March 2013, they returned to KSC for a payload verification test. The SVT and PVT are dress rehearsals for the experiment. The team will travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston this May 2013 to train the ISS crew in harvesting Arabidopsis plants grown on ABRS.
“It takes months and months of preparation and practice to get every aspect of this project just right,” Blancaflor said. “But when you watch your experiment blast into space and you know you’re work is on there, it is a life changing moment both personally and professionally.”
The delivery system for Blancaflor’s seedlings to space also will be a new experience. The NASA space shuttles were retired last year so transportation to the ISS will come from 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 the third Space X resupply mission to the ISS.