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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Experiment Grows Cotton In Space To Help Crops On Earth

Cotton seedling
Simon Gilroy
A cotton seedling prepared for space.

On Thursday, June 3 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the 22nd SpaceX Resupply Mission launched. The mission successfully docked at the International Space Station June 5. On board is a Wisconsin experiment that could help the growing of cotton on Earth.

Screengrab from the spacex.com website
Screen capture
Screengrab from the spacex.com website

For the first time, cotton seeds will germinate and grow in space over the next few days, under the supervision down here of UW-Madison botany professor Simon Gilroy.

Gilroy says he wants to clarify this is not to supply fabric for those in orbit. "Yeah, our classic joke when talking about the experiment is the astronauts are going to make their own suits. It's not what's its for," Gilroy tells WUWM.

Instead, Gilroy says the zero gravity of the Space Station is an amazingly unique laboratory. "To get an idea of how cotton grows on Earth with sort of the long-term goal of informing perhaps breeding programs for how we might improve cotton for better water use or less mineral requirements from fertilizers," he explains.

UW-Madison Botany Prof. Simon Gilroy
Photo supplied by UW-Madison
UW-Madison Botany Prof. Simon Gilroy

Gilroy says the idea is reduce cotton's large environmental footprint.

In addition to sending up what he calls regular cotton, also on board are two genetically-engineered lines of the plant that produce a protein more resistant to the stress caused by flooding. Gilroy says those altered cotton seeds are likely to grow better in space where water tends to stick to plant surfaces.

Gilroy says that should pay off on Earth if there are more floods due to climate change. "Flooding takes out a lot of agricultural productivity," he says.

After the space part of the experiment ends, the cotton seedlings will be frozen. Eventually, the plants will be sent back to Earth. Once that happens, Gilroy says he and his team at UW-Madison will spend up to a year measuring changes in things like chemical composition and the plant's genes.

The Target Corporation is paying for the experiment.

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