When the Space Shuttle Discovery roared skyward Oct. 29, most people's attention focused on 77-year-old astronaut John Glenn. But Rick Vierling was more concerned about the 1,000 soybean seedlings that also were on board.
The seedlings were the subject of a zero-gravity experiment to test a process for inserting new genetic material into soybeans. Vierling, a Purdue University agronomist and director of the Indiana Crop Improvement Association's genetics program, developed the procedure and asked NASA officials for the outer-space test.
University of Toledo biologist Steven Goldman helped him prepare for the experiment, then Vierling went to Florida and loaded the components onto the shuttle.
"The soybean experiment was loaded 36 hours before blast-off - one of the last things to go on," he reports. "We had to prepare the material at the Kennedy Space Center in several labs with different equipment."
Glenn conducted the experiment Nov. 1.
"How many people can say an American hero and former U.S. senator acted as their lab technician in space?" Vierling asks.
On Earth, just one gene transformation attempt in 1,000 is successful. "If we can increase the transformation rate, it will open up a whole new era for soybeans," says Vierling.
The plants are being grown to maturity in a University of Toledo greenhouse. The experiment's success will be determined after the seed is harvested.
"If this works, this will affect everybody," says Vierling. "This project could change the whole future of soybeans."
He adds: "If we are successful in increasing soybean transformation, we will be able to do more with genetic traits and produce more genetically engineered plants."
One of the first applications could be an arthritis vaccine for humans, says Vierling.