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Scientists Design Out-of-This-World Experiment

Posted July 12, 2007 7:27 p.m. EDT
Updated July 12, 2007 10:41 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina State University scientists will launch a new experiment next month – literally.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will carry tomato seeds being designed by university researchers to the International Space Station to measure microgravity's effects on plants.

"When you look at astronauts, they're floating around everywhere because they don't have gravity. What do plants do?" said Heike Winter Sederoff, an assistant professor of plant biology.

On Earth, plants can sense gravity, so their roots grow downward and their stems shoot upward toward the light, Sederoff said. But that changes in the limited gravity of space, she said.

"They really don't know very well where down and up are," she said.

If scientists know how and why the plants react, they might be able to manipulate plants on Earth by adding genes to make them stronger, said Mariya V. Khodakovskaya, a research associate at N.C. State.

"(We could make them) resistant to different types of stresses," Khodakovskaya said.

Astronauts are expected to send images of the plants back to N.C. State so researchers can monitor their progress.

"It's an experiment. If we knew the outcome, we wouldn't do it," Sederoff said.