Ohio Wesleyan Professor Earns Federal Funding to Continue Plant-Gravity Research
By Cole Hatcher
DELAWARE, Ohio – Ohio Wesleyan University professor S. Chris Wolverton has earned a three-year, $449,921 NASA grant to help advance the agency’s “understanding of how living systems respond, acclimate, and adapt to the space environment in support of human space exploration,” NASA announced.
Wolverton’s work will continue NASA-funded research he previously conducted, which included sending plants to the International Space Station in 2017 to explore how they grow under different gravitational conditions. His new research will follow up on the insights gained from the space experiment and extend it in new directions.
“Unlike the previous project, in which much of the work was focused on preparing to do an experiment in space, this project is entirely ground-based and entirely at Ohio Wesleyan,” said Wolverton, Ph.D., professor of Botany and Microbiology. “But just like last time, OWU students will be front and center, conducting experiments and analyzing mutants, looking for new genes that regulate root growth responses.
“We take it for granted that plant roots will grow down and shoots will grow up,” said Wolverton, who joined the Ohio Wesleyan faculty in 2002, “but we don’t really understand what regulates these growth responses at the cellular and molecular levels. Knowing more about the genes that govern these critical growth processes will allow us to develop crops that are better suited for particular environments, both on Earth and to support long-duration human space exploration.”
Wolverton’s research, set to begin in March, will study genes that showed signs of involvement in gravity sensing in the experiments carried out on the Space Station. Each gene will be systematically tested for a gravity-related characteristic using high-resolution image analysis approaches developed in Wolverton’s lab.
In addition to studying gravity’s effect on plants, Wolverton also researches how plants integrate signals such as light and touch to influence their growth and development. His lab uses a combination of mutants, transgenic approaches, and reporter gene studies along with a custom hardware and software system that combines real-time image analysis with motor control to study the dynamics of plant sensory output and growth regulation.
Including Wolverton, NASA awarded grants this fall to 18 investigators from 16 institutions in 11 states. According to the federal agency: “The awarded proposals represent the diversity of basic science research conducted by the Space Biology Program. They include microbiology investigations to understand microbial behavior and genetics, plant studies to advance knowledge in areas of gravitropic responses and crop plant biology, and research in physiological response by animals to altered gravity.”
Learn more about the latest grants awarded by the NASA Biological and Physical Sciences Division’s Space Biology Program in its announcement, “NASA Selects 18 Space Biology Research Proposals to Advance Scientific Knowledge of Life in Space and Foster Human Space Exploration.”
Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers more than 90 undergraduate majors and competes in 24 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through Ohio Wesleyan’s signature OWU Connection program, students integrate knowledge across disciplines, build a diverse and global perspective, and apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” and included in the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “best colleges” lists. Learn more at owu.edu.