Grant of Research Instrument from UN to Allow McPherson College Students to Study Plants in Low Gravity

By McPherson College
September 18, 2014

Say you want to study the way plants grow in the near-weightlessness of space. You can go with Option #1: Spend millions of dollars to burn rocket fuel to the International Space Station, grow plants and see what happens.

Or you could opt for the far more affordable Option #2: Attend McPherson College.

Thanks to a grant from the United Nations, this fall McPherson College received a research instrument called a “clinostat” delivered from Vienna, Austria.

While not exactly the same as researching in micro-gravity, the clinostat is the next best option and far less expensive than space travel, said Dr. Jonathan Frye, professor of natural science.

“The effects of gravity on life on Earth are pervasive,” Dr. Frye said. “The only way to study what they are is to be able to cancel them out and see how growth, development, and function change in the absence of gravity.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Frye applied to be one of 20 institutions worldwide to receive a clinostat this year from the UN’s Zero Gravity Instrument Project, and he recently learned that the application was approved.

“The UN’s interest is to engage all of the world’s nations collaboratively,” Dr. Frye said, “and to provide opportunities for basic research to those who otherwise would not have them.”

Dr. Frye said that MC has not owned a similar piece of equipment before and that a clinostat typically costs several thousand dollars to purchase.

Plants and organisms respond to gravity, but there is a delay in response time. The clinostat simulates a microgravity environment by rotating at the same rate as the response time of the organism being studied.

With the clinostat, students will be able to perform research projects on a variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, plants and animal cell cultures to investigate the effects of gravity on their growth, development and physical structure.

As part of the application, Dr. Frye created a four-year plan to work with students from freshmen through seniors to research the effects of microgravity on eight grass or grain plants. Even after the originally proposed research is completed, McPherson College will retain ownership of the clinostat to use in continued student research.

Dr. Frye said the basic research that will result from having the clinostat would be publishable in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals.

But Dr. Frye said the largest benefit of receiving this grant is the connections it will open up for McPherson College students to collaborate with other students.

“This is a great opportunity for collaboration with a growing network of educators, researchers and students worldwide,” Dr. Frye said.