MADISON - Scientists are finding that plants can serve as "vessels" for desirable new traits, such as disease resistance and life-enhancing drugs, but the process is fraught with inefficiency.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison and industry project aboard the Oct. 29 NASA Space Shuttle will look at whether microgravity can provide a more efficient environment for gene transfer.
Raymond Bula, who retired this summer as director of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), designed the project with three industry partners and the University of Toledo. About 1,000 soybean seedlings wrapped in water- soaked paper rolls will go on the flight.
In a technique patented by University of Toledo researchers, the plants will have their meristem region damaged just before launch. The meristem region directs the plant's diverse growth of roots, stems and leaf cells.
This damaged area provides an entry point for the new genetic information, Bula says, which can then be incorporated into the plant. The gene being introduced in this experiment has immune-strengthening properties. The process would allow use of soybean material as a source of medicine to relieve arthritis symptoms, Bula says.
When the seedlings return, they will be planted and researchers will monitor how many of the plants have this desirable new trait.
Says Bula: "If we can improve the gene transfer process to even one in 100 being successful, I think there would be tremendous industry interest."
Brian Mattmiller, (608) 262-9772