Michael Braukus Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1979


April 1, 1997

David Morse Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA (Phone: 415/604-4724) RELEASE: 97-62 SHUTTLE EXPERIMENT TO STUDY MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF PLANTS Studies of plants on the next Space Shuttle mission may someday lead to the production of lifesaving medicines and other important compounds. The experiments conducted by Dr. Gerard Heyenga at NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, will be part of the 16-day STS-83 mission, scheduled for launch this week. "A fundamental objective of this research is to evaluate whether microgravity may be used to alter specific metabolic pathways in plants, and ultimately apply this technology for Earth-based benefits," Heyenga said. Heyenga hypothesizes that extended exposure of plants to microgravity may reduce their expenditure of energy on structural components, thereby increasing flow through other metabolic pathways, many of which produce materials of important medicinal value. Of even greater significance is the possibility that corresponding changes may occur at a genetic level, he said. A comparison between space- and Earth-grown plants would give a unique opportunity to obtain a greater understanding of how these pathways are controlled at the gene level, Heyenga said. In turn, "such knowledge would allow us to manipulate or genetically engineer plants with desired metabolic traits," he added. "For example, this

information could be applied to the lumber industry in the production of trees with a low lignin content, greatly reducing the cost of paper production both economically and environmentally." Conversely, it might be applied to improving timber quality in fast-growing softwoods, reducing the need to harvest slow-growing hardwoods, he said. "If this hypothesis is correct and achievable, it obviously represents the basis for a multi-billion dollar industry and certainly highlights the value of space-related research and such facilities as the Space Station." A critical requirement in the investigation is the ability to maintain well-characterized and highquality plant-growth conditions during space flight and corresponding Earth experiments. "To achieve a meaningful understanding of the effects of microgravity on plants, it is essential that we minimize or avoid additional factors that may cause any stress and that complicate the evaluation," Heyenga said. To this end, the flight experiment will involve the use of a new, advanced plant growth facility known as the Plant Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (PGBA), built by BioServe, a NASA Commercial Space Center located at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The chamber was first flown on the Space Shuttle in 1996. "While it was essentially a hardware verification test, the PGBA produced a particularly high quality of plant material over the ten-day mission, which provided a good basis for further research," Heyenga said. The PGBA chamber maintains a highly controlled environment, supplying appropriate light, temperature and gas exchange conditions. The chamber will utilize the new modular "nutrient pack system" designed by Heyenga to supply plants with water and nutrients throughout the mission. Thirty packs will be used to support the growth of nine plant species. The packs offer several advantages over existing

systems. Depending on the type of supporting substrate used, packs may reabsorb water from the chamber's condensate recovery system, closing the water loop and presenting an important opportunity for long-term plant cultivation. A number of packs will utilize a gel matrix that will allow the examination of the roots' spatial orientation. Since the matrix is safely encapsulated in a protective membrane, the nutrient pack system has been certified for the first radiolabelling tracing experiment of higher plants in space. "This technology will open an entirely new area of space plant physiology, allowing the study of issues not previously possible," Heyenga said. "It is likely to lead to some very exciting results." The plant species chosen for the flight experiment include a member of the black pepper family. This choice was based on a collaborative effort with a research group in Brazil. "I believe it is highly important that we utilize every possible means to expand our understanding in space research," Heyenga said. "The use of such tropical species, with their unique and specific metabolic pathways, hopefully will provide us with an early indicator of whether our hypothesis is correct while the plants are exposed to the relatively short period of microgravity experienced during a typical Space Shuttle mission." Despite the complexity of the research program, Heyenga is pleased with progress so far. "The work has involved a particularly broad multidisciplinary effort by a number of organizations. As a visiting scientist on a National Research Council fellowship, it is unique to find a place like Ames that can support this type of activity," he said. "Earlier work by Dr. Robert MacElroy and Dr. Mark Kliss at Ames in the area of enclosed plant growth systems has provided important support for the present flight experiment." -end-