Plant science

Research scientist speaks at WSCC

Gravity is something we take for granted, in part because it’s hard to get away from.

Sarah Wyatt, a research scientist in plant biology at Ohio University, wanted to find out how removal of the influence of gravity affects the way plants grow, and she did it by sending plants to the International Space Station on a rocket.

That’s the short version of her story about a project that actually took several years to arrange and execute, a story she shared with a group of about two dozen students at Washington State Community College Wednesday morning.

Plants abound with mystery, she told the group, and are more complex than most people realize. The plant genome, for instance, is significantly larger than that of humans. The mechanics of how plants respond to gravity, she said, can be observed but it’s only dimly understood why plants behave the way they do. A plant sprouting from a vertical face of soil, for example, will bend and grow upward in defiance of gravity.

Using a jar of water with rocks in it, she demonstrated a characteristic of plant cells that allows the cells to determine which way is up – heavy starch molecules in the cell drift to the bottom, allowing the plant to orient itself.

Planning the NASA experiments, she said, was a long, complicated process.

“It takes huge number of people to do a flying experiment,” she said, showing a slide of more than half a dozen specially suited people preparing the small flat platters of seeds for space flight. In the end, she said, the receptacles weighed more than 17 pounds each, sealed in special containers to prevent contamination of the space station.

The containers were loaded into a resupply capsule on the nose of a Space X Falcon 9 rocket in January 2015 and, after an anxious delay, fired into space for rendezvous with the International Space Station. The astronauts set up the experiment, which lasted a few days and then was returned to Earth. The second, which lasted longer, took several months to get back and included placing the plants in a centrifuge that imitated several different strengths of gravity.

“Why would we do that?” she said. “Think about those levels of gravity, and think about other places, like the moon and Mars. If we send a manned mission to Mars, we won’t be able to send everything the astronauts need with them. They’ll need to be able to grow crops on Mars, and they’ll need to know how plants respond to the gravity there.”

Wyatt said after the presentation that the data obtained from the space station experiments will be examined for years.

Among the students at the event was Makayla McClain from the Washington County Career Center.

“I thought it would be interesting to see if this might be related to cells, gravity and health issues,” she said.

Wyatt encouraged the students to be persistent in their studies and keep in mind that incorporating the space environment into their work and research is not beyond reach.

“NASA has opportunities for students, so if you can design an experiment, you’ve got that chance,” she said.

The plant experiment

•Plant seeds were sent to the International Space Station to sprout and grow in a gravity-free environment.

•The plant tissues will be examined to determine, among other things, how lack of gravity affects gene expression and the behavior of proteins that switch genes on and off.

•Allowing the plants to grow in several different levels of gravity could yield valuable information about our ability to grow plants on other planets.