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The real-life Martian! Former Norwich botanist to launch science experiment into space from Kennedy Space Centre

PUBLISHED: 16:10 08 December 2017 | UPDATED: 19:44 08 December 2017

Richard Barker, a former Norwich resident now living in the US. Picture: Sandy Swanson

Richard Barker, a former Norwich resident now living in the US. Picture: Sandy Swanson

Archant

A scientist who honed his skills in Norwich is working on a cutting edge project in the United States to see how plants grow in hostile environments.

Dr Richard Barker Dr Richard Barker "killing time" at the Kennedy Space Centre. Picture: Simon Gilroy

Dr Richard Barker, a botanist who is now based at the Gilroy Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, has been working on an experiment that will be launched into space next week from the Kennedy Space Centre.

The former City of Norwich School pupil said 26 petri dishes containing around 12 Arabidopsis thaliana plants in each would be aboard a SpaceX rocket that would rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Here the plants will be allowed to grow in a zero gravity environment.

Dr Barker, 32, described Arabidopsis thaliana as “the lab rat” of plant science.

Plants grown at the Kennedy Space Centre. Picture: Shaun Stephenson Plants grown at the Kennedy Space Centre. Picture: Shaun Stephenson

“It is a fast-growing plant and is a close relative of vegetables such as broccoli.

“Using it will give us a good idea how other vegetables respond in that environment.”

Having previously worked at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Dr Barker moved to the US five years ago.

He said: “I started researching the effects of gravity from a botanical perspective and how plants perceive their orientation.

“Roots grow down to water and shoots grow up towards light but if you remove those, plants are able to detect gravity and direct their growth accordingly.”

He said the research was vital for issues such as food security and how the world could deal more effectively with producing crops in the changing climate.

“Finding out how plants respond to gravity is one part of the puzzle. We’re also looking at other environmental stresses such as the availability of water and flooding.

“This is all working towards how we can grow plants in unfriendly environments and in confined spaces.”

He said the SpaceX rocket is due to launch on December 12.

“Astronauts on the space station will allow the plants to grow for eight days before freezing them and sending them back to us at the end of January.

“They will send us photographs of the plants but until we get them back we won’t have much information.

“To get an experiment on a launch is not easy and you need to prove that it will work. It’s a real honour to be part of this and we’re very optimistic the launch will take place next week.”

•For more information on the project visit www.gilroylab.wordpress.com/ or www.astrobotany.com/

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