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'Moss in space' project shows how some plants grow without gravity

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Experiments on moss grown aboard two space shuttle Columbia missions showed that the plants didn't behave as scientists expected them to in the near-absence of gravity.

The common roof moss (Ceratodon purpureus) grew in striking, clockwise spirals, according to Fred Sack, the study's lead investigator and a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State University.

He and his colleagues noted this even in moss cultures grown aboard the second of the two space shuttle missions, STS-107, which had disintegrated upon its reentry in early 2003. Most of the hardware that contained the moss was later recovered on the ground, with some of the moss cultures still intact.

The researchers expected random, unorganized growth, as seen with every other type of plant flown in space.

"We don't know why moss grew non-randomly in space, but we found distinct spiral patterns," Sack said.

He and his colleagues report their findings in the current online edition of the journal Planta.

Common roof moss is a relatively primitive plant in which certain cells, called tip cells, are guided by gravity in their growth. This gravity response is only seen when moss is kept in the dark, as light overrides gravity's effect.

Moss originates from chains of cells with growth only taking place in the tip-most cell of a chain. When grown in the dark, the tip cells grow away from gravity's pull this gets the cells out of the soil and into the light.

The way these tip cells respond to gravity is exceptional, Sack said. In most plants, gravity guides the growth of roots or stems, which are made up of many cells. But in moss it is just a single cell that both senses and responds to gravity.

Common roof moss was grown in Petri dishes in lockers aboard two Columbia shuttle missions the first in 1997 and the other in early 2003. Although most of the experimental moss hardware from this mission was later
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Contact: Fred Sack
Sack.1@osu.edu
614-292-0896
Ohio State University
26-Jan-2005


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