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Biology professor's experiment returns from space

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Dr. Karl Hasenstein will leave for Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday to retrieve his plant experiment, which returned from the International Space Station on Sunday.

The UL Lafayette biology professor’s Biotube-Micro research project splashed down off the coast of California aboard a Dragon spacecraft. It was sent to the space station in April on a Falcon 9 rocket as part of a NASA resupply mission.

The experiment explores ways plants sense and react to gravity. It will be flown to Texas and then transported to Florida by truck, Hasenstein said. He expects the experiment to arrive Wednesday night, still encased in the aluminum container in which the Biotube-Micro device was housed in space.

Hasenstein will return to the University with the experiment on Tuesday, or Wednesday. He estimates at least six to eight months of research will follow.

Hasenstein and graduate students will examine how directional forces affected plant growth in a nearly weightless environment. The objective is to learn more about how and why plants grow up, while their roots grow down.

There are several theories. One centers on tiny starch grains, called amyloplasts, inside plants. Amyloplasts gradually settle in the direction of gravity, and are thought to provide growth cues. Hasenstein hopes to confirm the theory.

The experiment attempted to displace the starch grains in Brassica rapa plants; the turnip is a subspecies. The plants were encased in a semi-autonomous device and exposed to powerful magnetic fields, which repel the amyloplasts.

The conditions produce the same effect as when the particles are influenced by gravity. None of the other components of the plant are displaced, as would be the case with exposure to gravity.

Photo info: A University experiment to examine the effects of gravity on plant growth is back from the International Space Station. Brassica rapa plants, of which the turnip is a subspecies, sprouted in space inside the device shown above, which was encased in aluminum.