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Atlantis’ Final Mission Included Successful Kennedy-Developed Plant Experiment
A sample from the experimentA dish of the alfalfa sprouts that were part of the experiment to examine a bacteria's effect on them in space. Photo courtesy of Gary Stutte
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Gary Stutte leads research team.

Gary Stutte, left, stands with the two modules that were part of the experiment that flew on the last shuttle mission. Photo courtesy of Gary Stutte
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Researchers examine samples.

Scientists look over the plants that went into space on STS-135. Photo courtesy of Gary Stutte
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Atlantis carried many science and research experiments in its middeck during NASA’s last shuttle flight, STS-135, in July. Among these was a plant experiment developed at Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory (SLSL) that could have an impact on long duration missions to the moon or Mars.

Principal Investigators Dr. Gary Stutte and Dr. Michael Roberts with QinetiQ NA, and NASA Project Scientist Dr. Howard Levine created the Biological Research in Canisters-Symbiotic Nodulation in a Reduced Gravity Environment (BRIC-SyNRGE). A first of its kind to fly on a space shuttle, the purpose of the experiment was to study the symbiotic relationship between plants similar to alfalfa, which is in the legume family, and specific nitrogen-reacting bacteria in microgravity.

"It’s a distinct honor to have had an experiment onboard Atlantis, the final space shuttle mission, and I am indebted to everyone who worked so hard to make it possible to be a part of this historic mission," Stutte said.

About four hours after Atlantis landed at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility, the BRIC-SyNRGE experiment was retrieved and returned to the SLS Laboratory. Stutte said that initial reviews show that there was 100 percent germination of the plant seeds and excellent growth was observed.

"The SyNRGE science team has begun processing the samples and looks forward to learning the effects of microgravity," Stutte said. "Plants and the microbial world have been of interest at Kennedy for many years."

According to Stutte, the bacteria were introduced to each plant sample’s root hairs in order to study the effect. What he and the SyNRGE team are hoping to find is that the plants have formed specialized nodules where the bacteria can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plants can use to produce proteins.

The alfalfa-like plant, Medicago truncatula, was grown in a plant chamber at the SLSL. The day before Atlantis’ launch, several laboratory rooms were abuzz with activity. In one lab, samples were carefully harvested and inserted into Petri dish units. In another lab, technicians added the nitrogen-fixing bacteria and a liquid preservative to the dishes. In yet another room, plant units were inserted into the canisters. A total of 120 Petri dishes were installed in eight canisters. Each canister contained five units and a temperature sensor. The experiment was transported to the launch pad and added to Atlantis middeck as a late stowage item the evening before launch.

Stutte said this kind of study could provide a path for better food production, improve agricultural areas in third world countries, and reduce resupply costs for fertilizer. It could also have an impact on how food sources are grown during long duration space missions.

"Legumes are a major direct source of food for man," Stutte said. "These include soybeans, peas and beans. Also, forage for livestock, including alfalfa and clover."

During the STS-135 mission, crew members monitored the temperature of the BRIC-SyNRGE samples, added a fixing liquid to half of the samples to preserve them and left the other half untouched.

"We hope that our results provide information on how synergistic relationships form between plants and bacteria, and that we use that knowledge to benefit food and fiber production on Earth," Stutte said. "We hope our research brings us closer to achieving sustainable life support systems that permit long term habitation and colonization of space."

Levine said funding for the project was initiated in September of 2010 for the experiment to fly in July of 2011.

"It takes an incredible amount of skill and effort on the part of both the science and engineering teams. They are all to be commended." Levine commented.

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center