April 17, 2006

Researchers fly high to test plant growth for future space crops

The Vomit Comet

The Vomit Comet
Credit: NASA

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A team of Purdue University agriculture researchers will fly aboard an aircraft known as the "vomit comet" on April 18-21 in hopes of learning more about how plants detect gravity.

A question for those wishing to grow crops in space is how plant seeds know which way is "up" and which way is "down." While there is no gravity in space, an up and down gravity orientation is crucial to plant growth and development on Earth.

Marshall Porterfield, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, suggests that plants sense gravity through a process that develops a bioelectric field within plant cells. He and colleagues will test a new type of biosensor capable of measuring ion currents in multiple locations around a single cell. The MISA chip — for microfluidic ion sensor array — is a collection of sensors that detect ion motion in very small volumes of a sample.

"The challenge of this project is that we need to have very small probes to measure very small electric fields around very small cells," Porterfield says. "This development has the potential to change biology by providing information at considerably higher precision than was previously possible."

The so-called "vomit comet" is a DC-9 jetliner outfitted to transport scientists who wish to test various physical, chemical or biological phenomena in a reduced-gravity environment. The Purdue team will be based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for its flights.

Source / Credit: Purdue University / Beth Forbes






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