Study to measure gravity's effects on plant cells in space

Apr 11, 2014 by Natalie Van Hoose
Three disc-shaped "BioCDs" will use sensors to measure the calcium signaling activity of fern spores at varying gravity levels. Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

(Phys.org) —A Purdue University experiment that will test how plant cells sense and respond to different levels of gravity is scheduled to launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday (April 14).

Understanding how gravity impacts plants is key for determining the conditions necessary to grow plants in space.

"Being able to grow plants for food in microgravity and space environments is crucial if we're going to reach this amazing future of long-term space exploration that we all imagine," said Jenna Rickus, associate professor in the departments of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. "We tend to think of propulsion and spacecraft technology as the main challenges to , but the true challenge is really the biology."

Known as "SporeSat," the autonomous, free-flying spacecraft will investigate how variations in gravity affect calcium signaling in germinating spores of the fern Ceratopteris richardii. Calcium signaling - a gravity-directed process - acts as a compass for plants, determining the directions sprouts and roots grow during germination.

The experiment will help determine the minimum level of gravity needed to trigger normal calcium signaling activity in plant cells. Rickus said artificial gravity might be necessary to produce crops for food on future long-term space missions. Rickus and postdoctoral research assistant Amani Salim are the mission's principal investigators.

The SporeSat spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

The study also will lead to a more detailed understanding of the molecular and biophysical mechanisms plants use to detect gravity.

Aboard SporeSat are three disc-shaped "BioCDs," devices that use lab-on-a-chip technology developed by Marshall Porterfield, a Purdue professor of agricultural and and horticulture and landscape architecture. Each BioCD contains four rings of eight fern spores. During the experiment, two of the BioCDs will spin to simulate gravity while the third will remain stationary as a microgravity control.

Each ring of spores on the spinning discs will experience a different level of depending on how far it is from the center. Microelectrodes will measure the spores' calcium signaling activity and transmit the data back to Earth.

Because human cells use , the study also is an important step toward understanding the effects of space's microgravity on the human body, said Porterfield, who also is division director of NASA's Space Life and Physical Sciences research program.

"We're finding that microgravity affects all of our systems," he said. "Our immune system, muscles, circulation - even our vision - are affected over time."

Porterfield said SporeSat's microsensor technology also provides a foundation for future studies of cell activity, both on Earth and in space.

"The lab on a chip is a platform that could screen for any cell activity in any kind of cell," he said. "It can easily be diversified to develop therapeutic drugs and clinical strategies for treating human diseases."

The SporeSat mission will be flown aboard a nanosatellite weighing about 12 pounds and measuring 14 inches long by 4 inches wide by 4 inches tall. The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on the Falcon 9 rocket will deploy the satellite into low-Earth orbits between 200 and 250 miles above the planet.

Explore further: Comet dust—planet Mercury's 'invisible paint'

Related Stories

Next SpaceX launch to ISS set for October 7

Sep 21, 2012

There will be more Dragons in space! The SpaceX Dragon's next launch to the International Space Station has been scheduled for Sunday, October 7, 2012, NASA and SpaceX announced today. This will be the first ...

Space-raised flies show weakened immunity to fungus

Jan 24, 2014

Venturing into space might be a bold adventure, but it may not be good for your immune system. Now a study by researchers at the University of California, Davis and published Jan. 24 in the journal PLOS ON ...

Tackling tumors with space station research

Feb 28, 2014

In space, things don't always behave the way we expect them to. In the case of cancer, researchers have found that this is a good thing: some tumors seem to be much less aggressive in the microgravity environment ...

Why study plants in space?

Dec 03, 2012

(Phys.org)—Why is NASA conducting plant research aboard the International Space Station? Because during future long-duration missions, life in space may depend on it. ...

Space station boosting biological research in orbit

Aug 13, 2013

Studying the science of biology in microgravity opens a world of possibilities! Research ranges from plant growth to cell growth and from bacterial virulence to strength in human bones. The scope of biology ...

Recommended for you

Comet dust—planet Mercury's 'invisible paint'

3 hours ago

A team of scientists has a new explanation for the planet Mercury's dark, barely reflective surface. In a paper published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers suggest that a steady dusting of carbon from p ...

It's 'full spin ahead' for NASA soil moisture mapper

6 hours ago

The 20-foot (6-meter) "golden lasso" reflector antenna atop NASA's new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory is now ready to wrangle up high-resolution global soil moisture data, following the successful ...

What drives the solar cycle?

6 hours ago

You can be thankful that we bask in the glow of a relatively placid star. Currently about halfway along its 10 billion year career on the Main Sequence, our sun fuses hydrogen into helium in a battle against ...

MESSENGER completes 4,000th orbit of Mercury

6 hours ago

On March 25, the MESSENGER spacecraft completed its 4,000th orbit of Mercury, and the lowest point in its orbit continues to move closer to the planet than ever before. The orbital phase of the MESSENGER ...

ESA recovers IXV spaceplane

6 hours ago

ESA's recovered IXV spaceplane arrived at the Port of Livorno in Italy yesterday and is set to be taken to Turin for final analysis.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.