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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Growing food in space may be more complicated than scientists first thought, a University of Tennessee plant genetics researcher said Friday.

Orchard grass cells aboard the space shuttle Discovery did not grow as expected in weightlessness, said Dr. Bob Conger of the UT Agricultural Experiment Station.

It is information of interest to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“The absence of gravity appears to have a dramatic effect, either on the initial cell divisions or the early events in the development of the embryos,” Conger said.

“It means people living in space could grow and harvest food to eat but may not be able to grow and re-plant seeds in space,” Conger said.

Conger and his colleagues divided 648 orchard grass leaves. Half went on the shuttle, half stayed on Earth.

“Those segments that flew in space were much more severely affected than the control group,” Conger said.

“Our studies show there were fewer cell divisions in the leaf segments that flew versus those that stayed on the ground.” More than twice as many embryos were created by the cells that remained on the ground, he said.

“If the absence of gravity has this strong negative effect on initiation and development of plant embryos, it probably means we won’t be able to grow and re-plant crops such as wheat, corn or rice during extended space flight.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is interested in Conger’s data because it wanted to know how weightlessness would affect normal plant growth in a space station or on long-term space exploration.

“Just as space travel now requires recycling of water, oxygen and waste, it may one day be necessary to grow food up there,” Conger said.

Orchard grass was used because it is from the grain family and because UT had developed a model for comparing growth in space and on Earth.

Conger said it will be several months before he completes final reports on the experiment.

Contact: Bob Conger (615-974-8833)