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Research from NC State professors is aboard space station

By Nina Pasquini
The News & Observer

RALEIGH — The biology projects of two N.C. State University professors are now aboard the International Space Station and may soon help provide answers about how plants respond to extreme environments.

The recent launch of SpaceX-22 to the space station delivered more than 7,300 pounds of science, research and hardware. The plant projects of N.C. State professors Marcela Rojas-Pierce and Imara Perera were among the research.

Both projects attempt to grow plants in microgravity, or very weak gravity. Seeing how the plants respond could have wide-ranging applications, providing knowledge that could aid with projects ranging from long-duration missions to Mars to attempts to grow food on Earth.

Rojas-Pierce and Perera said that they painstakingly prepared their experiments for the launch, given that the chance to conduct such experiments in space is rare.

“It took a lot of time to prepare, to adapt the experiment to be done in space,” Rojas-Pierce said. “That was very stressful, because anything that goes off may ruin the experiment.”

Rojas-Pierce’s research focuses on the process of vacuole fusion, which enables plant growth.

“In our lab in Raleigh, we study how the vacuole is formed, and part of that process involves a fusion of vacuoles during development,” she explained. “We’re asking with NASA whether microgravity affects these fusion events in a way that could affect the growth of plants in space.”

Perera’s research, on the other hand, focuses on gene expression and protein accumulation. Specifically, her research seeks to understand how plants determine which way is up and which way is down in the near absence of gravity.

“We have been interested in gravity as a stimulus and also how plants respond to that, what kind of signals are generated inside the plant in response, to enable them to orient in the right direction,” Perera said.

Eric Land, Perera’s doctoral student, added that their experiment could have applications for future projects. Growing plants in space helps with providing both food and psychological benefit to astronauts, he said. This research could also help with growing plants in extreme climates on Earth.

“There’s only one Earth, and more and more people, and less and less arable land,” Land said. “So some time in the future, if we want to do not only really cool stuff, like inhabit Mars, or have a lunar station where we’re growing things — this research feeds into not only that, but we can reapply it here on Earth to more extreme environments.”

Perera and Rojas-Pierce also explained that their research could serve as blueprints for future similar experiments.

The projects are expected to return to Earth on July 20 along with SpaceX-22, though analysis of the results will last for many months.

Beyond the scientific discoveries that will arise from the experiment, Land says he is excited by the interest that space biology projects generate.

“In addition to getting to do these amazing experiments, every time this happens, there’s this outpouring of interest. As educators, one of the most exciting parts of that is when you have a bunch of young, talented, interested students that look at this as an ideal, and just want to be involved in whatever way they can,” he said.

Perera added that even high school students have been getting involved with basic preliminary research. “It’s been a very promising and rewarding experience,” she said.

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