On June 3, 2021, botanist Simon Gilroy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched cotton seeds including genetically modified ones to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Gilroy and his team will study cotton seedlings grown on the ISS to better understand cotton growth. This is the first time that cotton will be grown in space.
Gilroy’s team will compare cotton grown in space and on Earth to try to understand how the important crop’s root system grows under the unique stresses of zero gravity. The research, funded by Target, is designed to help scientists understand how to more efficiently grow cotton, which requires enormous quantities of water.
For this experiment, two types of cotton will be sent to the ISS. “We’re flying regular cotton, but we’re also flying cotton that is genetically engineered to produce a protein that, on Earth, makes cotton more resilient to a big spectrum of stresses. That protein on Earth is switched on under low-oxygen environments. Our prediction is that the overexpression line will grow better in space,” says Gilroy.
Ahead of the launch, Gilroy’s research team will prepare cotton seeds on specialized Petri dishes at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The seeds will then be loaded into the Dragon spacecraft and sent to the space station, where astronauts will install them into growth chambers.
The seeds are expected to germinate and grow for six days. During this time, astronauts will photograph their roots to capture information about their size, shape, and direction of growth. Back on Earth, the Gilroy lab will perform an identical experiment.