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Pharmacy Lab, Space Company Partner on Plant Microgravity Study


CubeLabs prepared for launch (Space Tango)

5 July 2018. A university pharmacy lab and spin-off company building cargoes for space travel plan to test various plants in microgravity on their ability to produce therapeutic compounds. The company Space Tango, a four year-old enterprise in Lexington, Kentucky, is collaborating with researchers at University of Kentucky’s pharmacy school on a study that will send two different forms of plant life to the International Space Station for the tests.

The lab of Kentucky pharmacy professor Joseph Chappell, also the school’s chair, studies processes in plants for producing substances for development into treatments for disease. Among the lab’s interests is the potential effects of microgravity, or weightless conditions in space, on plants grown on earth that contain compounds with therapeutic benefits. At present, those effects are unknown, which is one of the motivations for the project.

“No plants are growing in outer space; no plants grow in the absence of gravity that we’re aware of,” says Chappelle in a university statement. “By putting them in that very unnatural environment, we hope to kind of open Pandora’s Box.” That Pandora’s Box is experiments putting  plants with beneficial compounds under weightless conditions, a form of stress not encountered on earth because of gravity. Since the plants evolved on earth for millions of years under conditions of gravity, the Kentucky team hopes a weightless environment can offer insights for scientists into adapting or modifying plants to optimize their production of compounds for drugs or food products.

In the Chappelle lab, the study is led by postdoctoral researcher Chase Kempinski who studies triterpenes, compounds from plants with waxy surfaces having a range of applications in food, health, and industrial biotechnology. For this project, Kempinski is a consulting plant physiologist with Space Tango preparing plant samples for their journey into space. In a preliminary study, Kempinski sent seed samples of Madagascar periwinkle and Valerian into orbit to test the effects of microgravity. Madagascar periwinkle produces small quantities an anti-cancer compound, while Valerian is used today in supplements to help relieve anxiety.

In the new tests, the researchers plan to send Madagascar periwinkle and Valerian seeds in a Space Tango payload to germinate, and observe effects on the plants’ biology as they begin growing in microgravity. Space Tango prepares cargoes in what it calls CubeLabs, standard 4-inch cube-shaped modules that can be built and configured together into TangoLab systems for launch on SpaceX Falcon rockets, as well as deployment, descent, and retrieval. The company says it has 2 TangoLabs currently deployed on the International Space Station.

Funding and intellectual property aspects of the partnership were not disclosed. In the following video, Chappelle, Kempinski, and Space Tango co-founder Kris Kimel tell more about the project.

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