UF experiment to study plant response on International Space Station

Space Plant Lab asks how plants grow in spaceflight environment

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX will launch a few weeds on the ride of their lives in February to the International Space Station for a University Florida experiment to study how plants respond to space flight.

University of Florida plant biologists Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul and Dr. Robert Ferl, with the UF Space Plants Lab want to know how plants adapt while in space.

When plants get cold, they “knit” their genes. The UF Space Plants Lab experiment is designed to answer the question of how plants change, or how their genes adapt while in space.

SpaceX is scheduled to launch the UF experiment on Feb. 18, along with other supplies to the International Space Station on Cargo Resupply mission 10.

The seeds that will get the mighty task are Arabidopsis thaliana, or flowering weeds.

Ahead of the launch, the Space Plants Lab will hand-carry the planted seeds in 30 petri dishes to Kennedy Space Center, handing them over to NASA 48 hours before launch.

"Their first life is in spaceflight environment," Paul said.

Astronauts have also been growing plants on the International Space Station lab, using the vegetable production system known as “Veggie.” The experiment will be in its fourth duration from March to September.

UF’s plants will be using the same hardware as Veggie, but the experiments are not related, Paul said.

After the Dragon cargo capsule is unpacked, the astronauts will take the seeds, planted in Jell-o-like nutrients, out of cold-stow bags and place them under the light of the Veggie planter to stimulate growth.

Astronauts will photograph the first row of plants -- "the poster child," Paul said-- every day, documenting the patterns in the roots.

The rest of the dishes, containing 20-30 seeds each, won't be handled much after they are placed in the Veggie system.

Plants are very sensitive to changes in their environment, Paul said. Even picking them up and photographing them could disrupt them.

Paul and Ferl will communicate with the astronauts, instructing them how to photograph and care for the plants, through their payload manager who will pass along the messages to the person who talks with the Space Station residents.

"It's like a dangerous game of telephone," Paul said. "It's amazing."

The plants will grow for a little less than two weeks then been packaged up in KSC fixation tubes that will preserve the plants until they can be analyzed by the Space Plants team at UF on Earth.

Once the samples are back on Earth, scientists at the UF/ IFAS lab will sequence the plant genomes to find out how they responded to growing in space, specifically changes in DNA-methyaltion.

Paul said they expect to see substantial differences between how the plants with gene mutations and those without mutations responded to spaceflight.

“Learning how a plant copes with the challenge of spaceflight contributes to our understanding of how plants might respond to new and challenging environments here on Earth as well,” Paul said.

The more scientists understand about plant responses in space, the better it will be for future missions, she said.

“Plants do know when that they are riding in a jet plane, they know when they’re in orbit,” Ferl said. “The reason that we know that they know is because we’ve studied their gene expression patterns.”

Many of Paul and Ferl’s experimental plants have been in low gravity before. Their plant subjects have been on parabolic flights, where they were weightless for less than 30 seconds at a time, on jet airplane rides and they have plans for another experiment with Virgin Galactic.

The first space plant experiment conducted by Paul and Ferl was a five-day flight on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999.

Watch the Space Plants Lab video below to see the type of weed that will fly on the International Space Station.