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Space Experiment Aims to Quench Cotton’s Thirst

After being put on hold in 2020 due to COVID travel restrictions, Targeting Improved Cotton through Orbital Cultivation (TIC TOC) launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on SpaceX Dragon Crew Resupply Mission 22 on June 3.

The project’s aim is to grow genetically modified, drought-resistant cotton at the ISS.  TIC TOC is a product of the Gilroy Life Science Lab “Collaboratory,” which aims to research how plants sense and respond to their environment and how these signals regulate plant development.

Gilroy, located at the University of Wisconson-Madison, noted that the world produces about 25 million tons of cotton annually, requiring millions of gallons of water. The research emphasis of the lab is to try and understand these processes at the cellular level by combining advanced microscopy approaches, such as confocal microscopy with biochemistry and molecular biology, to address a wide range of biological questions. These include how do plants sense and respond to abiotic stresses, how do roots and shoots sense and respond to gravity and touch stimuli, how do plants regulate growth and how do plants respond to the spaceflight environment.

The researchers are testing how the absence of gravity affects cotton’s root growth so it can be produced more efficiently on Earth.  The experiment could identify new mechanisms to enhance plant resistance to drought and salinity stress, Gilroy said.

Mechanical destruction, herbivores, microbes, heat, cold, drought, flood, atmospheric gaseous content, light and ionizing radiation can all negatively affect plants, but gravity’s impact is still being studied. The Gilroy lab analyzes the molecular biology of arabidopsis plants, or small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard, with altered genes to in order to investigate their function.

The environment combined with the plants’ genetics creates what Gilroy calls the plant “phenotype.” Sometime genes make plants more sensitive to environmental stress and others make plants more resistant. A Gilroy database allows citizen scientists to find genes that respond to spaceflight.