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Trio Chosen from International Space Station Cotton Sustainability Challenge

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has chosen three projects from its Cotton Sustainability Challenge that will go into orbit for testing.

Sponsored by Target Corp., the challenge provided researchers and innovators the ability to propose solutions to improve crop production on Earth by sending their concepts to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. Specifically, the challenge is aimed at improving water sustainability in growing cotton.

Through the collaboration, CASIS and National Aeronautic & Space Administration (NASA) will facilitate hardware implementation and in-orbit access to the ISS National Lab, while Target will provide grant funding for selected proposals. CASIS is the organization tasked by NASA with managing the ISS National Lab.

The selected projects include “Field Scale, Aggregated Best Management Practice Verification and Monitoring,” from Marshall Moutenot at Upstream Tech in Alameda, Cal.

Upstream is a public benefit corporation with a mission to create economic forces that drive environmental conservation. To get there, Upstream has created a customizable and scalable machine learning platform that uses data from Earth-observation satellites to inform and help public, corporate and nonprofit sectors make evidence-based decisions related to water use, management and conservation. Upstream proposes to leverage ISS remote sensing imagery to expand the capabilities of its “Best Management Practice Assessment and Real-time Monitoring” platform to enable automated monitoring and analysis of cotton agriculture and inform Target’s production-related water use goals for sustainable cotton production.

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The second project chosen is “Unlocking the Cotton Genome to Precision Genetics,” from Christopher Saski at Clemson University in South Carolina.

This project proposes using the tools of genetic sequencing to examine gene expression, DNA patterns and genome sequences of three different cotton varieties using embryogenic plant material. Each of the cotton varieties responds and regenerates differently when grown in tissue culture on Earth. In the absence of gravity, the differences during the process of regeneration might be affected and could give new insights into the genetics of plant growth and regeneration. A better understanding of these processes could advance fundamental biological knowledge and improve the ability to grow cotton plants that more efficiently use water and adapt to changing environments.

Rounding out the trio is “Targeting the Roots of Cotton Sustainability,” from Simon Gilroy at the University of Wisconsin.

The ISS National Lab provides a unique opportunity to investigate which environmental factors and genes control cotton root-system development and function in the absence of gravity-related patterning. This experiment will assess the degree to which root system architecture influences stress resilience, water-use efficiency and carbon sequestration during the critical phase of seedling establishment.

CASIS noted that the challenge provided researchers a novel way to leverage micro-gravity to evaluate avenues for more sustainable cotton production. Since cotton cultivation requires sustainable access to natural resources like water that are increasingly threatened, the challenge sought to engage the creative power of the research community to leverage the ISS National Lab to innovate and generate ideas that will improve the utilization of natural resources for sustainable cotton production.

“Bringing awareness to cotton sustainability is a powerful opportunity to showcase the unique research facets of the International Space Station,” Cynthia Bouthot, CASIS director of commercial innovation and strategic partnerships, said. “We look forward to working alongside Target and our selected researchers as they prepare to send innovative research to our orbiting laboratory.”

These projects don’t represent cotton’s first trip to space. A spokesperson for Cotton Incorporated, the research and marketing organization for U.S. cotton growers and importers, said, “Cotton has actually been in space several times before. The original Mercury astronauts wore long cotton underwear, and fire-retardant cotton created by NASA, and Cotton Incorporated was part of the crew apparel for the International Space Station.”