Studying How Cotton Seedlings Grow in Zero Gravity - Modern Farmer

Studying How Cotton Seedlings Grow in Zero Gravity

To better understand root systems on Earth, scientists sent 48 cotton seeds to grow on the International Space System.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough checks on cotton plants growing in space.
Photography courtesy of NASA.

In hopes of discovering ways to reinvent how cotton grows, botanists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have sent the plant to space. 

On Earth, gravity is the primary factor in a plant’s root systems digging into the ground. This experiment, dubbed Targeting Improved Cotton Through On-Orbit Cultivation (TICTOC), is designed to remove gravity from the cotton-growing equation in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of what else drives root systems into the soil. 

The US is the number one exporter of cotton, producing more than 20 million bales of the crop from July 2019 to August 2020, and accounting for 35 percent of the global cotton trade, according to the USDA. Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some experts say cotton is the “largest user of water among all agricultural commodities.” Botanists hope the experiment will inform ways to breed new strains of cotton that have stronger, deeper root systems to more sustainably and effectively seek out water and have a higher potential to sequester carbon. 

The cotton growth chamber containing a seedling ready for harvest. Photo by Tom

Researchers launched 48 cotton seeds—each of which had been placed in gel in a special petri dish and then refrigerated to stop germination—to the International Space Station last June for the study, which was funded by a grant from Target Corps and sponsored by the International Space Station Natural Laboratory, according to Successful Farming.

[RELATED: The Future of Farming in Space]

After a 40-hour trip, the seeds arrived at the space station where astronauts planted them in a growth chamber, documenting their root systems’ growth over a six-day period. Once the three different strains of seeds had the chance to germinate, grow and develop roots, the seedlings were frozen until they took a journey back to Earth a little over a month later. 

The veggie plant growth hardware at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo by Jeff Richards.

The short growth period allotted to the plants in space is due to the limited size of the growing chamber on the station. But even with the short period of time, the seedlings developed 8-inch-long root systems, botanist Simon Gilroy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told Successful Farming. 

Now that the plants are back earthside, researchers will compare their growth patterns to those of seedlings that were land-grown and determine how a zero-gravity growing environment impacted the cotton. The experiment will allow scientists to dig into the genetic makeup of the cotton and gain a greater understanding of the plant to assist in breeding improved, more sustainable cotton varieties for the future.

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