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Feature   |  Summer 2006

Flyin' High

Scientists develop "lab-on-a-chip" biosensor to study plant cell responses in microgravity

Porterfield

Purdue's D. Marshall Porterfield begins to experience the effects of weightlessness as the NASA aircraft he's aboard enters the microgravity phase of its flight.

A Purdue University research team tested a new type of biosensor in the microgravity of a high-altitude NASA aircraft to help them determine how plant cells detect gravity.

D. Marshall Porterfield, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and co-director of Purdue's Physiological Sensing Facility, heads the team, which spent four days in flights from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The aircraft, a military version of a DC-9 jetliner, flies in a series of up to 40 rapid ascents and descents called “parabolas.” The plane climbs and falls at a mind-numbing angle of 50 degrees, and, during each descent, everything on board experiences from 20-25 seconds of microgravity, a force of gravity so low that weightlessness occurs.

Aeraj ul Haque

Graduate student Aeraj ul Haque sets up electronics instrumentation for a biochip that will help a Purdue research team determine how plants know which way is “up” and which way is “down” in a reduced-gravity environment.

During the experiments, the scientists used a silicon-based, “lab-on-a-chip” biosensor to measure cellular signaling events associated with gravity sensing in the plant cell system of the Ceratopteris fern spore. “The system worked flawlessly,” says team member Aeraj ul Haque. “I could watch the cells responding as the flight progressed.”

experiments

Team members (from left) D. Marshall Porterfield; Mary Salmi, University of Texas; and Purdue graduate students Aeraj ul Haque and Andrew De Carlo prepare for upcoming experiments after installing equipment in NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. (Purdue team members Steve Wereley and Mohn Rokkam not pictured.)

With the microgravity experiments complete, the team is using the biosensor for further research on the ground. “The results of the experiment are groundbreaking, but they pale in comparison to the importance of the technology that enabled it,” says Porterfield. “Now, we can diversify this foundation technology to perform new research in agriculture, biology, environmental science and medicine. The potential for application is almost endless.”

(Photos courtesy of Purdue Physiological Sensing Facility)

 

 

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