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Growing Wheat on Mir

Office of News and Public Affairs
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Spuds Redux

After potato success, UW Scientists turn to growing wheat in space

The folks who brought us spuds in space have a new crop to tend this
month, when they attempt to grow an amber wave of weightless grain.

The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics will run a three-month
experiment aboard the Russian Space Station Mir with the hope of
harvesting the first food plant to grow from seed to seed in space.

The project begins with 14 seeds of a special dwarf variety of wheat,
which grows only 9 inches tall. If successful, it will end 80 days later with
mature plants producing seeds of their own.

NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour , scheduled to launch on Jan. 22, will
carry the wheat seeds in a specially designed plant growth chamber
created by WCSAR. The unit will be transferred to Mir to complete its
growing season, then be transported back home in May aboard the
Space Shuttle Discovery.

Raymond Bula, director of WCSAR at UW-Madison, says the upcoming
experiment is the most commercially exciting of its six space missions
since 1992. Some early evidence indicates that genetic information
could be transferred more efficiently in space, he says, suggesting that
heartier crops and new drugs could be engineered in microgravity.

"We're looking at the ability to grow plants that have some economic
meaning, rather than just growing plants as a model," says Bula. "We see
potential for using plants as a biofactory in space."

Long before that happens, scientists must bolster the evidence that plants
can complete a full life cycle and regenerate in space. Two previous
experiments in 1995 and 1996 involving the same dwarf wheat variety,
developed at Utah State University, failed to yield fully mature plants that
produced seeds, he says.

But in August, a project aboard Mir with another Wisconsin connection
achieved that important milestone. An experiment run by Louisiana State
University scientists used Wisconsin Fast Plants, a quick-growing mustard
plant developed at UW-Madison, to grow plants from seed to flower to
seed in just 40 days.

The achievement with Fast Plants gives Bula greater optimism for the
wheat experiment, especially with the addition of the sophisticated
controls of their plant growth chamber. Called Astroculture, the growth
chamber enables plants to grow under extremely precise controls for
temperature, light, humidity and nutrients.

Temperature and humidity, for example, can be controlled for the duration
of the experiment, he says. The lighting is provided by high-intensity
light-emitting diodes -- similar to the red lights on a stereo -- that bathe 
the plants in the precise amount of simulated sunlight. And the water and
nutrients are delivered through porous stainless steel tubes.

In 1995, the potato-growth experiment showed that microgravity had no
negative effects on the development of potato tubers. Aside from
increased amounts of protein, the space tubers differed little from their
Earth-grown kin.

Bula says future experiments will ask the question differently: Rather than
hinder plant growth, can microgravity actually have benefits? One theory
holds that eliminating "buoyancy effects" caused by gravity allows the
cells to remain in suspension. In doing so, the DNA materials could more
easily interact during cell division. This increases the chances of
incorporating desirable genes and enhancing the genetic engineering of
new plant materials.

Some agricultural companies are intrigued by the possibility of doing
space-based plant research, and WCSAR has industry partnerships with
several soybean firms that are planning future projects. WCSAR has
developed a much larger plant-growth chamber, about the size of a large
microwave, for eventual use on the International Space Station planned
for shortly after the turn of the century. Unlike the current chamber, which
is about 9 inches tall, the new chamber could be suitable for growing
soybeans, the second-largest cash crop in the United States.

"Some companies are interested in doing a plant project in space right
now -- they don't want to wait four years for an international space station,"
Bula says. "The potential is definitely there to create new products and
get new values in agriculture."

Lunar Agriculture

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