NASA recently recognized researchers from the University of Florida with an award for the ‘Most Compelling Results’. Over the past few years Robert Ferl, a professor in molecular biology and Director of the university’s Interdisciplinary Centre of Biotechnology, and Anna-Lisa Paul, research associate professor in plant molecular genetics, have sent plants into space to analyze how they grow and develop in a zero gravity environment.
To conduct the experiments Ferl and Paul sent samples of plants on a Space-X Dragon rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) where they could monitor them in orbit. The samples were tagged with fluorescent molecules and monitored by the Light Microscopy Module on the ISS. This allowed them to see how molecules moved around the plant and how resources used by the plants were allocated. The researchers also analyzed the plants once they returned from orbit.
The results provided an interesting discovery about the roots skew pattern, a specialized arrangement of the plants root and shoot system. In optimal conditions on Earth the roots of a plant generally branch off perpendicular from the shoot. However, in space the roots branch off at an angle from the shoot system of the plant. Before this experiment scientists thought that without gravity the roots skewing pattern would be random.
Ferl and Paul also discovered that the reason why plants can grow in space is due to their ability to adjust their basic metabolism. Robert Ferl, University of Florida said “Each part of the plant had its own metabolic strategy for adjusting to an environment without gravity.”
They also discovered that light plays a bigger role in guiding roots when the plant is in a zero gravity environment. The direction of light serves as indication to the plant, which leads the root system to grow away from the leaves of the plant.
Experiments like these are a great step forward to see if we can grow plants on another planet, should the need arise, and how to better grow plants in Earth’s ever changing environment.“… the more we can understand how plants respond to novel and extreme environments,” Anna-Lisa Paul, University of Florida said, “the more prepared we are for understanding how plants will respond to the changing environments we are experiencing on Earth.”