UT researchers, NASA to send ferns to outer space

Jameson Pitts

What starts here leaves the world — and burns up on re-entry.

University researchers are working with NASA to send fern spores, which are similar to seeds, into outer space on a nanosatellite that will measure how the spores respond to gravity. Future applications of the research could help lessen the toll space travel takes on astronauts’ bodies, such as that experienced on a long-term mission to Mars. 

“If you’re losing muscle and bone that whole time, you might be in bad shape when you get back down,” microbiology professor Stanley Roux said. 

Roux’s research centers on the spore cell of a common tropical fern. As only a single-cell system, the spore responds to gravity by growing in the appropriate direction. 

“Once you know the molecular basis of gravity sensing and responding, then you can control it,” Roux said.

Tony Ricco, project technologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, is a part of a team working to engineer an autonomous satellite — dubbed SporeSat-2 — that will use miniature centrifuges to expose UT-grown fern spores to various levels of g-force while in orbit. 

“We’re going to be flown in something called NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, and that’s a program that basically finds rides into outer space for these small satellites,” Ricco said.

CubeSat satellites like SporeSat-2, which is only 14 inches long, could be carried into outer space by rockets made by companies such as SpaceX or Orbital. If granted final approval at the end of the year, the SporeSat-2 mission could launch in late 2016 or early 2017.

The experiment will use a device made by engineers at Purdue University and NASA Ames to measure the minimum threshold at which the spores can sense gravity. UT researcher Mari Salmi said the team had to build devices to overcome challenges such as placing individual spores into tiny wells to be measured.

“It’s like making a basket with a tiny, tiny basketball, and the basket is just a little bigger than the ball, and you can break the basketball really easily,” Salmi said.

Salmi has been involved with the research since an initial experiment on a space shuttle in 1999 which laid the groundwork for future research.

“It’s exciting to have the research keep going and be part of something big like understanding this basic fundamental process and how it applies to all cells,” Salmi said.