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Gene tinkering, fragrance testing among shuttle experiments


In this story:

October 23, 1998
Web posted at: 10:09 p.m. EDT (0209 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Among the experiments to be included on space shuttle Discovery next are one to see if low gravity might be the perfect environment for genetic experiments on plants, and another to see if a rose grown in space still smells as sweet.

The experiments were prepared by teams at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in conjunction with private industry.

Gene work hit-or-miss on Earth

Raymond Bula, who just retired as director of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, said he hopes low gravity will make it easier to introduce new genes into plants.

The process is currently hit-or-miss, although when a new gene "takes" it can transform a plant so that, for instance, it grows tastier tomatoes or herbicide-resistant soybeans.

Plants also are being genetically engineered to produce human proteins, and even vaccines that can be eaten.

"If we can improve the gene transfer process to even one in 100 being successful, I think there would be tremendous industry interest," Bula said in a statement.

Private industry and the University of Toledo helped design the project, which will involve sending up about 1,000 soybean seedlings wrapped in simple water-soaked rolls of paper.

The shuttle scientists will insert a new gene into the seedling that strengthens the immune system. The idea is to make the soybeans produce a drug that would relieve arthritis symptoms, Bula says.

When the shuttle comes back the seedlings will be planted and later analyzed to see if they took up the gene more efficiently than they would have on Earth.

Looking for new fragrances

The rose project was created in conjunction with New York- based International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). It will look at whether microgravity can alter the fragrance of the essential oils of plants.

The rose, a fragrant variety called International Sensation, will be grown in a device developed at the university called Astroculture, a chamber that can precisely control growing conditions in space.

After the shuttle's return, the miniature plant will be tested for any possible otherworldly aroma that could make for a unique consumer product.

"Companies like IFF are always looking for new natural sources of flavors and fragrances that consumers haven't experienced before," Norman Draeger, an associate scientist at the university, said in a statement.

"They find plants from exotic places on earth, such as Africa or South America, and identify pleasant tastes and smells. This latest exotic place where they haven't looked before happens to be space."

Draeger says there are good reasons to believe that the gravity conditions found in space will affect the formation of plant oils.

This is because of a principle of physics known as "buoyancy-driven convection." For example, gravity on Earth makes the components of a cell buoyant, causing them to float around in cellular fluid the way an ice cube floats near the surface in a glass of water.

But in space, where weight is no longer a factor, an ice cube will just hang in a glass and can move up, down or sideways.

During the flight, the shuttle crew will take a chemical sample of the flower, which on the shuttle's return will be analyzed at IFF.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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