Here’s Why CASIS Is Sending Cotton Into Space

As part of its Cotton Sustainability Challenge, CASIS has chosen three cotton experiments to be sent to the International Space Station.

Cotton crops.
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As part of its Cotton Sustainability Challenge, CASIS has chosen three cotton experiments to be sent to the International Space Station.

After Budweiser barley seeds and mutant mustard plant seeds, its time for cotton to make the trip to space. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) intends to ship off three cotton science experiments to the International Space Station (ISS), the national laboratory announced in a news release.

The three experiments are the big winners of CASIS’ Cotton Sustainability Challenge, an initiative that gathered proposals aimed at optimizing cotton farming on Earth by improving water sustainability. In other words, finding better, more efficient ways to grow cotton without using as much water.

CASIS will be working together with NASA to provide in-orbit access to the U.S National Laboratory on the ISS (which is managed by CASIS), as well as assistance with hardware implementation for each of the three selected projects.

“Bringing awareness to cotton sustainability is a powerful opportunity to showcase the unique research facets of the International Space Station,” Cynthia Bouthot, who manages the commercial innovation and strategic partnerships at CASIS, said in the news release.

One of the winning projects is helmed by Upstream, a California-based public benefit corporation, and will employ a user-friendly “machine learning platform” to monitor cotton crops through ISS remote sensory images and analyze these images in real time.

Another experiment is focused on genetic sequencing and aims to examine the gene expression and other features of three different cotton cultivars grown in zero gravity. This project, led by Christopher Saski, who runs the Genomics and Computational Biology Laboratory at Clemson University in South Carolina, is meant to study the growth and regeneration of cotton plants in order to find a more efficient to farm cotton by using fewer resources.

The third project that made the cut and will be flying off to space was submitted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is dedicated to the study of root-system development in cotton plants. The research aims to explore the effects of zero gravity on the AVP1 gene, which makes cotton plants develop a stronger root system and become more resistant to high salinity and drought. This gene accounts for a 20 percent increase in cotton fiber when the plants are exposed to stressful conditions and makes the roots dig deeper and stretch wider in search of nutrients.

The importance of the Cotton Sustainability Challenge is tied to the continuously diminishing water resources needed by cotton plantations back on Earth. According to Bouthot, cotton cultivation requires access to water and other natural resources that are increasingly at risk due to overexploitation and climate change.

Growing enough cotton to make a single T-shirt requires more than 700 gallons (2,700 liters) of water and about 5 ounces (142 grams) of pesticides, notes Space.com, citing according the World Wildlife Fund.

The Cotton Sustainability Challenge is sponsored by Target Corporation, which is offering a $1 million grant to each of the winning projects, Spaceflight News reports.