French Astronaut Grows Plants in Space
Arabidopsis seedlings tilted at 45 degrees on hard agar surface. (Top) Wild type seedlings showing more root waving. (Bottom) Mutant strain showing more root coiling.
Credit: G. Scherer

A French astronaut is tending a miniature garden on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the first experiment inside the orbiting laboratory's new European research module.

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Leopold Eyharts is growing tiny seedlings inside the space station's Columbus laboratory, which he helped deliver during last month's STS-122 shuttle flight.

The WAICO experiment — short for Waving and Coiling of Arabidopsis Roots at Different g-levels — could help scientists figure out how to grow crops in space for future astronauts during long space voyages. Eyharts is growing two types of Arabidopsis seeds, relatives of the mustard plant, in both zero gravity and Earth gravity during the study.

"We’re going to see how they grow in microgravity," Eyharts told a group of 300 students in Toulouse, France Tuesday via a video link. "They can live for a long time on the International Space Station, but they’re not going to grow the same way as they do on Earth."

Eyharts said the experiment began in earnest a few days ago in Columbus' Biolab research rack, so it is still too early to determine how his orbital crop is fairing.

"Theoretically, we should be able to [analyze the] results and the samples when we get back to Earth," Eyharts said.

Both a wild type and a genetically modified type of seed will be left to grow for 10 to 15 days. Biolab's video cameras will record the growth and allow Earth-bound observers to see the plants progress in real-time.

The experiment's lead scientist, professor Guenther Scherer from the Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, will observe how the different levels of gravity affect the normal spiraling and coiling root growth.

By the end of the experiment, Biolab will automatically preserve the seeds in their final state of growth for scientists to analyze back on Earth. Eyharts will also take photographs of the plants' appearance at that time.

Biolab is one of several science experiments planned for ESA's Columbus lab, which Eyharts is commissioning during his stint as an Expedition 16 flight engineer aboard ISS. The research module is Europe's largest contribution to the ISS project.

Eyharts and seedlings alike will return to Earth in late March aboard the space shuttle Endeavour during NASA's upcoming STS-123 mission.

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