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Genes-in-space project gets new run aboard shuttle

Space shuttle launch.
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The College of Engineering's Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) will have a chance in April to build evidence that microgravity is fertile ground for crop improvement.

In partnership with the Indiana biotechnology company Producers' Natural Processing, WCSAR will direct a research project aboard NASA's April 24 space shuttle mission, STS 101.

The goal: Demonstrate that genetic transformation of agricultural crops, an arduous and inefficient task on earth, has better odds in space.

Weijia Zhou, director of WCSAR, says the research payload will start with 1,000 germinating soybean seeds. Once in orbit, shuttle astronauts will add a solution that contains agrobacterium, which serves as a vector for enabling genes to enter plant cells and become integrated in the plant's genome.

The target gene in this year's project could produce in soybeans an "edible vaccine" being developed by PNP. A second "reporter gene," which gives off a green fluorescent color, is used so scientists can detect whether the transfer occurred.

This test will build on the qualified success of WCSAR's first gene transfer experiment in November 1998. That experiment produced a 10-fold increase in transformation compared to a control group of soybean seeds on earth. Normally, transferring desirable genes into soybeans has success rates of only about one in 1,000.

However, the experiment fell short because the virulence of the agrobacterium overwhelmed the seeds and ended up killing them. Zhou says the group made improvements to this year's experiment to improve the survival rates of seeds.

"Gene transformation is a game of numbers," says Bratislav Stankovic, a WCSAR scientist and investigator on the project. "When the odds are this low, it takes a lot of effort and money to get transformed plants. If we improve the odds by a couple orders of magnitude, we could see real benefits for agriculture."

Gene transfer is being employed for a variety of goals in agriculture, with one of the most common being improving the natural pest resistance of crops. Other developments include improving frost resistance and adaptability to extreme climates, and expressing vaccines or other nutritional benefits in foods. Edible vaccines could be a major health advance by helping immunize people in Third World nations more cheaply and easily.

It's an exceedingly inefficient process for many crops, such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets or bananas. Why microgravity seems to improve this process is still up in the air, the researchers say. The prevailing theory is that the increased buoyancy or suspension time of the genetic material allows more time for genes to be integrated.

Sponsored by NASA, WCSAR pursues commercialization of space technology and utilization of space to enhance product development. The organization developed a series of plant growth technologies that paved the way for numerous controlled studies aboard the space shuttle. This marks the ninth space shuttle mission for WCSAR.

Brian Mattmiller