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Plants Return from Space in Microgravity Research Projects

Under red light, green plants grow in several small containers at the VEGGIE growth chamber at Kennedy Space Center.
Ground control plants grow in plates at the VEGGIE growth chamber at the Kennedy Space Center.

The plant biology experiments of two NC State researchers are back on Earth after spending weeks at the International Space Station.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Marcela Rojas-Pierce, a professor, and Imara Perera, a research professor, sent plant biology experiments to space in early June. Now, the projects have returned, and Rojas-Pierce and Perera will study how these plants have reacted and adapted to new and extreme environments. 

Marcela Rojas-Pierce
Imara Perera

Rojas-Pierce’s project focuses on how microgravity affects vacuoles, plant cells’ largest internal structures. Vacuoles have several roles, including breaking down and storing proteins. 

Rojas-Pierce sent two Arabidopsis genotypes to the International Space Station: one wild type and one mutated. The mutated genotype lacks proteins that help vacuole fusion; that results in small vacuoles in a plant. Rojas-Pierce and her team have tested how a chemical inhibitor, Wortmannin, induces vacuole fusion in the mutant plants. Scientists at the International Space Station conducted similar experiments before preserving the changed cell structures and sending the plants back to Earth.

Plant samples returned to Earth from the International Space Station in small round containers.
Plant samples after they returned to Earth from the International Space Station.

“This particular experiment is embedded in a bigger-picture project we have in the lab here on Earth where we’re trying to understand how plants respond to gravity,” Rojas-Pierce told NASA. “We know that the vacuole is important for that response. We’re trying to understand why.”

Perera’s research project looks at microgravity’s effect on plants’ metabolic pathways. The gene expression and protein accumulation in the plants sent to the International Space Station will be compared to ground control plants grown at Kennedy Space Center. The comparison will show the molecular responses of plants to microgravity and the space environment.

Under red light, a green plant grows in a container at the VEGGIE growth chamber at the Kennedy Space Center.
Ground control plants grow in the VEGGIE growth chamber at the Kennedy Space Center.

“Understanding how plants adapt to space is important in order to cultivate plants on long duration missions,” Perera said. 

Both Perera’s and Rojas-Pierce’s teams will spend several weeks analyzing the plants on Earth.