Spacefarming at NC State

Last April, a FedEx truck pulled up to NC State’s Centennial campus carrying a single box. Two drivers had worked in shifts, pushing through the night on 17-hour haul from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Inside the cardboard, sealed with a bright red NASA sticker, was a deep-frozen capsule not much bigger than a fishing bucket.  As Dr. Imara Perera and her research assistants began to unseal the lid, the two FedEx drivers hung around, curious to catch a glimpse of their unusual cargo.

Through thick layers of frost, they might have been able to see rows of tiny plants, frozen in place, that will help Dr. Perera and her team unlock the molecular secrets of plant signaling. Each plant grew for just five days aboard the International Space Station before entering a deep freeze and being shipped a very, very long way to Raleigh.

“Plants have to be able to sense various signals that are coming from the environment,” said Dr. Perera, a research professor in NCSU’s Department of Plant Biology and the primary investigator for the NASA-funded project. “You might think they’re not doing anything, but there are all kinds of responses that are happening internally and at a molecular level to help them deal with these different stresses.”

And inside the dozens of little seed cartridges freshly arrived from low Earth orbit, tiny arabidopsis plants had been responding to the unique stresses of a microgravity environment. In studying the changes wrought on these space-grown plants, Dr. Perera and her colleagues hope to glean new insight into the way plants adapt, right down to their molecules.

“We created some transgenic plants where we tried to manipulate a particular signaling pathway,” Dr. Perera said. “The idea would be that if a particular signaling molecule is important, and we introduced a gene to limit it, those plants might be somehow impaired in their ability to sense a microgravity environment and respond to it.”

Having survived a blast into space, five days of growth aboard the International Space Station, months of a deep-freeze aboard the station, and a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean aboard a Space-X capsule, Dr. Perera’s plants are now under analysis in an NC State laboratory. It takes months to gather volumes of data about each tiny plant, and even longer to analyze and compare that data against control groups.

Dr. Chris Brown, who helped design the plant signaling experiment and is now the UNC system’s vice president for research, said the long-term goal is a better understanding of how plants adapt to extreme conditions.

“Experiments like these let us study some of the early changes that are part of a universal capacity for plants to respond to a stressful environment,” Dr. Brown said. “We won’t be growing plants on earth in a microgravity environment, but we do grow plants in plenty of less-than-ideal conditions. If we can begin to understand how to manipulate these gene pathways, we can understand how to make plants more adaptable.”

The NC State research was funded through a NASA grant and conducted in cooperation with the European Space Agency. Dr. Brown said these kinds of experiments take years of ground-based preparation, but are well worth the effort. “The International Space Station is a hundred-billion dollar investment, and we want to make the most of it.”

NC State’s work with NASA is also providing ample opportunity for the next generation of researchers to get hands-on experience. Kalyani Joshi, who works on the plant project, recently told the NC State Technician that real-world research is a big motivator for undergraduates. “NASA funding can continue to promote undergraduate research so that students have the opportunity to see class material applied to real life,” she said.

And being able to design and execute an entire space-born project helps attract new students to the field. “Even if they don’t come to us with a lot of scientific experience, we can teach them,” Dr. Perera said. “It’s a matter of how enthusiastic they are, how motivated they are, and whether they have good hands in the lab.”