CORVALLIS - When astronaut John Glenn blasts off in the space shuttle Discovery on Oct. 29, an Oregon State University student's research project will be packed in the shuttle's payload.
Andreas Madlung, a doctoral candidate from Corvallis, said 10 microwells packed with his tomato plant tissue cells will be hitching a ride on the mission as part of a donation of hardware and space access from Instrumentation Technology Associates' Student Space Education Outreach Program.
One of two payload specialists on the nine-day flight is the 77-year-old Glenn. Glenn made history 36 years ago when he strapped himself into a nine-by-seven-foot capsule atop an experimental rocket and became the first American to orbit the Earth.
"John Glenn is a payload specialist; he will be in charge of the payload, but I don't know how much, if anything, he will actually have to do with my own project," Madlung said.
Madlung is using tomato tissue culture cells that have grown for about a month in OSU incubators. When it comes time to ship out, the tissue will be sent to Instrumentation Technology Associates in Exton, Penn., where ITA researchers will transfer the material and a nutrient-rich agar solution into the microwells and seal them for flight.
Since 1982, ITA has worked to develop multi-year flight arrangements with space agencies and private organizations worldwide and to facilitate access to space flight for industry, research institutions and entrepreneurs. In 1990, ITA created a successful student hands-on outreach program that allows students to develop and fly their own experiments in space. More than 30 educational institutions around the world have flown their own experiments through ITA's donation of hardware and space access.
"I won't have much room," Madlung said. "I have ten microwells and each well holds 125 microliters, oh, let's just say a couple of drops, of material."
But that should be enough to help him find answers about how space affects plant growth. Working with his doctoral supervisor Terri Lomax, an OSU associate professor of botany and plant pathology, Madlung is already planning his trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch his project be rocketed into space.
Discovery is scheduled to lift off at 11 a.m. on Oct. 29 from the Kennedy Space Center and then reach an orbit altitude of 310 miles. Landing is scheduled at the space center about 9 a.m. on Nov. 7.
Madlung's goal is to find out how the plant tissue reacts to Discovery's microgravity space laboratory. Central to the ITA-OSU experiment are "tracheary" elements - essentially hollow cells, which, when formed end-to-end, develop into the water-conducting vessels in plant stems, roots and leaves.
"This experiment is particularly fascinating in that it starts in the laboratory, heads for the stars, and then returns, eventually to find application in the fields and forests of Oregon and beyond," said Wilson "Toby" Hayes, OSU vice provost for Research and International Programs.
"I also find great comfort in knowing that as we train tomorrow's scientific and academic leaders, they are increasingly turning to important problems of sustainable natural resources and food supplies that will impact the future of our planet," Hayes said.
When Discovery returns to Earth on Nov. 7, Madlung will be waiting, ready to dissolve the cells and check their transformation with a scanning electron microscope. While water transport is a simple concept, Madlung explains that the Earth's gravity complicates the matter. Plants receive most of their water from their roots, and then, against the force of gravity, must send the moisture through networks of stems, branches and leaves.
"Gravity not only requires strong structural support for a tall plant, but also poses the problem of water transport from the roots to the leaves, which in some species can mean that the water has to be transported more than 100 meters (328 feet) against the force of gravity," Madlung said.
"It can only be speculated whether it was necessary for plants to evolve tracheary elements and (other) structures to defy the gravity environment or whether gravity induces the formation of tracheary elements directly," possibly by the hormones auxin and cytokinin, key regulators of plant growth.
"This question is at the heart of my proposal," Madlung said. "We seek to understand the role that gravity or the lack thereof, plays in the formation of these specialized cells. It will take about a week to come up with the results."