How two NC State professors' experiment could help understand plant growth in space

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Thursday, June 3, 2021
NCSU professors send plant experiments to ISS via SpaceX
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The SpaceX Dragon launched with crew supplies as well as plant research from two NC State University professors.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When SpaceX's 22nd contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station blasted off Thursday at 1:29 p.m. at least two NC State professors watched the launch with excitement.

"We worked on this project for about two years now, so we have practiced every single step 1000 times," explained Professor Marcela Rojas-Pierce, with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at NCSU.

"We had to develop protocols to make sure that what we're doing is going to work. So, in terms of our experiment, we actually start with seeds and they're actually grown on plates. After the seeds germinate out in the space station the astronauts will use a specific tool to inject two solutions," Rojas-Pierce explained.

Rojas-Pierce worked with fellow colleague Professor Imara Perera on the project. Their work will help researchers understand how plants respond to extreme environments and how microgravity affects a plant's cellular processes.

Together, the duo is testing how microgravity in the ISS impacts the fusion of "cellular organelles" or small compartments within the cell, according to Rojas-Pierce.

"We are looking at cell structure using microscopy, and more importantly I think we're doing a cell biology essay where we have a set of cells -- these real plants -- we're applying these inhibitors and looking at a dynamic process like back heel fusion, which nobody has done before," she added.

The research can help provide a better understanding of how to prepare for future long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.

"NASA is interested in ensuring that there is a food supply for astronauts when they have long-term missions," Rojas-Pierce said.

Along with science, researchers also find another benefit to growing plants in space.

"Studies find they particularly enjoy growing the plants because you know, we all like gardening and growing plants is fairly relaxing," Rojas-Pierce said. "So, it's actually yet another reason why NASA is always interested in promoting experiments with plants is for the mental health of astronauts."

The plants are expected to return to earth about four to five weeks after launch and will be brought back to the NCSU labs to determine how microgravity affected their cell structure.