Duke University Alumni Magazine

Astral Agriculture

Musgrave: pollinating plants aboard the space shuttle
hen the space shuttle Columbia is launched in October, the mission will include an experiment in how plants reproduce in space. For Mary Musgrave Ph.D. '86, the principal researcher overseeing the project, the investigation marks her fifth trip into space--figuratively speaking. A professor in the plant pathology and crop physiology department at Louisiana State University's Agricultural Center, Musgrave has been involved with a series of space explorations into how weightlessness affects plant growth and reproduction. Funded by NASA, the experiments have already begun to yield clues about basic biological processes that take place during a plant's life cycle.

     "In micro gravity, we are able to study biological processes in a very different physical environment, and this lets us understand how things proceed in a much more precise way," says Musgrave. "And we can gain new insights on how to approach problems on Earth, since we'll have a better understanding of the mechanisms involved."

     Unlike the first three missions, a summer Mir Space Station flight and the upcoming fall mission allow for greater collaboration among the crews, the on-board plant project, and the researchers back on Earth. "For the previous experiments, the crew monitored the equipment function but didn't work with the plants at all," Musgrave says. "In fact, the astronauts couldn't even see them, since the plants were locked in suitcase-sized containers. But the October experiment is much different because it's highly interactive. The crew will be responsible for a lot of hands-on manipulation. We'll be able to see video photographs of what they're doing and they'll have a chance to ask us questions."

     Dubbed the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment, the October project involves scientists from three U.S. universities and research institutes in Ukraine. In January, two Ukrainian cosmonauts came to Louisiana to be trained by Musgrave on conducting the experiment. (Before the launch, one of the two will be selected as the payload specialist in charge of the project and the other will simultaneously duplicate the experiment on Earth.) She taught them how to use a "bee stick," a toothpick with an actual bee's thorax attached, to pick up pollen from the anther, or male part of the flower, and transfer it to the stigma, or female part. The pollination process begins the reproductive process.

     "Past experiments have dealt with the early stages of seedling growth," says Musgrave. "We're interested in the other end of the plant cycle when they are flowering and making new seeds. It's important beyond basic biology, too. If we are eventually to use plants on space missions as food, we need to have plants go through the complete life cycle, from the vegetative to the reproductive stage." Previous attempts to grow plants to the flowering stage failed, says Musgrave, perhaps because of the lack of convective air movement in the weightless environment of spacecraft. (Researchers won't be the only ones following the project closely. School children in the U.S. and Ukraine will watch broadcasts of the experiments being performed on the shuttle and attempt similar ones in the classroom.)

     Flora was in Musgrave's future from an early age: Her father was an agronomist at Cornell University. At Duke, she was a James B. Duke Fellow in botany, studying plant respiration. During a NASA-sponsored postdoctoral fellowship at the Duke phytotron, she collaborated with scientists at the F. G. Hall Lab to grow plants under very low atmospheric pressure.

     Her doctorate is in botany and cell and molecular biology. In addition to her research pursuits at LSU, Musgrave teaches classes, including one in space biology this spring. Those students traveled to the Johnson Space Center to conduct experiments in weightlessness on the KC135 aircraft used in the film Apollo 13. ("Apparently when they were shooting the film," says Musgrave, "Tom Hanks clocked more time on it than the astronauts do for an actual mission.")

     Musgrave's green thumb extends to her off-duty pursuits as well. She and her husband, John Blasiak Ph.D. '89, maintain a garden at home. "In Louisiana, the soil stays wet because of all the rain we get," she says. "In a way, there are parallels with the work I do with space experiments. If you try to grow plants in a space environment, the water has nowhere to go. But once we installed a drainage system in our garden, we could grow all kinds of things. We have grapes, carrots, leeks, sweet corn, squash, cucumbers, flowers. Right now, we're about ready to harvest our peas."

     Enough, it seems, for a heavenly repast.

--Bridget Booher

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