Growing plants in space

Biology student Melika Osareh looking at image date on a lab computer.

Melika Osareh is a junior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. Along with her research mentor Dr. John Z. Kiss and project collaborators Dr. Tatsiana Shymanovich, Alena Jones, Alex Settle, Noah McMurry, and Kelsey Taylor, Melika is investigating how plants might grow in space. Learn more about her project below.


My project.

Growing plants in space, on the Moon, or Mars, could enable prolonged space exploration by providing astronauts with fresh food, oxygen, and psychological benefits. However, growing plants in altered gravity conditions can be challenging because plants may respond differently than on Earth. On Earth, plant roots grow down, towards gravity and shoots grow up against gravity. However, when grown in an environment where there is little to no gravity, plant growth rates are usually negatively affected due to this “stress” factor.

2D clinostat

Our research studies the effects of gravitational stress on plants. In our lab we are trying to determine what genotypes of a common model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana (a small plant in the mustard family) may have gravitational stress-resistance, or in other words, may be able to grow just as well under simulated gravitational stress as its vertically-grown counterparts. We are using a device called a 2D-clinostat – a simple wheel-like device that continually spins. It randomizes the gravity vector on plants as it spins continually for 7-days, or in other words, it confuses the plant as to which direction is “up” or “down.” We’re also now testing out a more sophisticated 3D clinostat, which is basically the same except it also rotates the plant around two axes.

Afterwards we compare the results from our clinostat-treated group with the vertically-grown controls to see if any genotype shows no difference or better growth. The next step will be to find genes responsible for gravitational stress-resistance, various crop-plants can be checked or modified for growing in space.

How I got involved.

During my first semester at UNCG, I came across a local magazine article while I was volunteering at the STEM for Girl’s event held annually at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. There, I learned about this research going on in the Biology department. I found it fascinating how space research was being conducted here on Earth, and right here at my university. Being an astronomy and space-exploration enthusiast since junior-high, I decided to ask to meet with the professor conducting the research, Dr. John Z. Kiss, and personally ask if I could partake in it. Upon being accepted into the team, I started gaining experience in the lab, running tests and analyzing data. As I analyzed each plant genotype (or strain), I found it remarkable to see how differently plants reacted in the absence of a stable gravitational vector and I grew eager to discover what genotypes would show signs of possible gravitational resistance.

Impact.

Out of the 53 genotypes we’ve analyzed so far, I was lucky to come across two genotypes that showed no difference in growth and even better growth in some parameters when under clinorotation. These genotypes or strains will be prime candidates for future spaceflight experiments with plants. However, more tests will be needed to find other genotypes showing vigorous growth during clinorotation. In the long term, experiments in true microgravity during spaceflight need to be performed to prove or disprove our predictions based on clinorotation treatment.

The most surprising discovery for me was seeing how much information could be retained from a 3cm long seedling!

I’ve already had several opportunities to disseminate the results of my research.

  • UNC-Greensboro Lloyd International Honors College Symposium, UNCG, NC. February 2020
  • State of NC Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium, Duke University, NC. November 2019
  • Triad Tech Savvy – Find your STEM Conference, JSNN, Greensboro, NC. 2019 & 2020
  • UNC-Greensboro Undergraduate Research and Creativity Expo, UNCG, NC. April 2020
  • North Carolina Space Grant Undergraduate Research Award Research Report Submission to NASA, August 2019

Obstacles.

Our project posed the most challenges in data analysis and experimental design. The seedlings analyzed in our lab are only about 3-5 cm tall and require high magnification for accurate analysis. For this, we use a high-resolution EPSON scanner to scan the seedlings grown during the experiment and use image-analysis software called FIJI to analyze the different growth parameters of seedlings in minute detail. Another difficulty was entering data manually from FIJI into our data sheets. For this, I developed a technique to record measurements from FIJI in multiples rather than one at a time as was done before. Additionally, our graphing process for visualizing data was very time-consuming. To save time, I came up with an adjustment to our method that allowed automatically graphing those portions that were previously entered manually for each genotype.

Another difficulty we would sometimes encounter was the seedling plates becoming contaminated or not having enough germination and so we had to rerun some experiments – sometimes up to 4 times – to get what we needed.

Undergraduate research experiences.

Participating in this project has opened many doors for me as an undergrad. It not only has helped me develop great lab skills such as lab safety, report writing, and data presentation, but it has also exposed me to the professional scientific world through symposiums and other events. In the future, I hope to work as a biomedical engineer at NASA, helping to provide medical necessities for astronauts, and I believe this project will be beneficial in helping me towards that goal.

Advice for undergraduate scholars.

Search, ask, and connect. Opportunities are not always going to come to you, sometimes you really have to do your own research and ask around to get what you want. In addition, don’t be afraid to ask! Just because you think you’re not qualified for a position, scholarship, etc. doesn’t mean you actually aren’t. Try it out and you may be surprised. Lastly, try, in every possible way during your college years, to form connections with faculty, mentors, and other successful upperclassmen in your field. These are people who will help you big time in the short-term and long-term.


The URSCO blog helps UNCG’s undergraduate scholars share their work and impact with the world. Interested in sharing your work? Contact URSCO Director Lee Phillips at plphilli@uncg.edu or Office of Research and Engagement Media and Communication Manager Sangeetha Shivaji at s.shivaji@uncg.edu.


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