UF plants blast off with astronaut Branson

As Richard Branson floated weightless 53.5 miles above the earth on Sunday, three UF plants underwent similar sensations. At least, as much as plants can feel weightlessness.

UF researchers and horticultural professors Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl began studying plant gene expression in microgravity more than two decades ago, and with the help of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), the two researchers have performed experiments on plants in space.

But, Sunday’s trip marked a new milestone.

“Although changes in gene expression are well characterized between orbital space (like the ISS) and on Earth, no science has yet been done to capture changes in the gene expression during the transition to and from sustained microgravity,” Paul said in a statement.

Throughout the Virgin Galactic flight, astronaut Sirisha Bandla activated three Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tubes (KFTs) designed by Paul and Ferl and funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. At the same time, three identical KFTs were activated on the ground.

These KFTs allow astronauts to perform quick experiments while transitioning to and from zero gravity. The tubes are self-contained with a model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana and a fixative that mix when activated.

“The successful use of KFTs enables a wide range of biological experiments in suborbital space, as any biology that can fit inside the KFTs can be sampled at any phases of flight chosen, in real time, by the scientist astronaut,” Ferl said.

During this flight, astronaut Bandla activated one KFT before reaching space, one at maximum altitude while weightless and the last one at the end of the weightlessness period.

Ferl and Paul retrieved the KFTs once the VSS Unity landed in New Mexico. They will bring the KFTs activated in space along with those activated on the ground to Gainesville in order to continue their research.

“In the future, astronauts may go back and forth between Earth, the Moon and Mars and orbiting platforms like the International Space Station and the Gateway outpost orbiting the Moon,” Ferl said. “Understanding the changes that occur in cells during these missions will be important to maintaining their health.”

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