Perfume In Space: Project May Give Space Travel A Whole New Fragrance

October 09, 1998

MADISON - To some, a whiff of rare perfume might evoke images of a wild, exotic place. But a University of Wisconsin-Madison and industry research project will be in truly exotic territory when it tries to cultivate fragrances in space.

A plant growth experiment aboard the Oct. 29 NASA space shuttle mission will attempt to determine whether microgravity can alter the fragrant and flavorful "essential oils" of plants. The work is a joint project of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) and the New York City-based company International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). (The project is one of two UW-Madison projects scheduled to be on board. See related story.)

The flowering plant will grow in WCSAR's device called Astroculture, a chamber that can precisely control growing conditions in space. When the project returns, the scientists hope to see whether the plant's brief growth spurt in space might produce an otherworldly aroma that's useful in consumer products.

"Companies like IFF are always looking for new natural sources of flavors and fragrances that consumers haven't experienced before," says Norman Draeger, a WCSAR associate scientist. "They find plants from exotic places on earth, such as Africa or South America, and identify pleasant tastes and smells."

"This latest exotic place where they haven't looked before happens to be space."

Draeger says they have reason to suspect that microgravity will be a player in this process. Plant oils are a complex mix of many different chemicals that form inside a plant, and a slight change in the chemical mix may produce big changes in the oil's flavor and fragrance.

One important difference between earth and space growing conditions, Draeger says, is in a physics principle called "buoyancy-driven convection." This is one of several effects that govern the transfer of mass inside cells from one place to another.

On earth, gravity makes the components of a cell buoyant - they float around in cellular fluid the way an ice cube floats in a glass of water. But in space, where weight is no longer a factor, the same ice cube would just hang in the middle of the water. If lightly tapped, Draeger says, the cube could move in any direction.

That same "absence of buoyancy," Draeger says, could make a difference in how these oils are formed inside plants. Molecules coming together in chemical reactions may be able to move more differently inside the space-bound cells of plants, potentially creating new compounds with different properties.

During the flight, the shuttle crew, using a proprietary technology developed by IFF, will chemically sample a flower of the plant. A fiber needle will be placed near the bloom of the flower to collect the fragrant molecules.

Upon its return, IFF scientists Subha Patel and Braja Mookjerjee will analyze the samples using the tools of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

Anyone who's checked the fine print on ingredients knows that flavoring and fragrances are big business. IFF is the world's leading creator and manufacturer of flavoring and fragrances, and its creations are in scores of consumer products, including perfumes, soaps and detergents, air fresheners and a variety of foods.

IFF devotes almost $100 million annually to research and development of new products, which the company says is the largest effort of its kind "devoted to the two senses of taste and smell."

This marks the sixth space shuttle flight for WCSAR's Astroculture technology. The growth chambers are governed by a myriad of environmental controls, with light-emitting diodes that provide red and blue light, watering systems and a tiny camera that allows scientists to monitor progress from earth.

Brian Mattmiller, (608) 262-9772
-end-


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Plants Articles from Brightsurf:

When plants attack: parasitic plants use ethylene as a host invasion signal
Researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology have found that parasitic plants use the plant hormone ethylene as a signal to invade host plants.

210 scientists highlight state of plants and fungi in Plants, People, Planet special issue
The Special Issue, 'Protecting and sustainably using the world's plants and fungi', brings together the research - from 210 scientists across 42 countries - behind the 2020 State of the World's Plants and Fungi report, also released today by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

New light for plants
Scientists from ITMO in collaboration with their colleagues from Tomsk Polytechnic University came up with an idea to create light sources from ceramics with the addition of chrome: the light from such lamps offers not just red but also infrared (IR) light, which is expected to have a positive effect on plants' growth.

How do plants forget?
The study now published in Nature Cell Biology reveals more information on the capacity of plants, identified as 'epigenetic memory,' which allows recording important information to, for example, remember prolonged cold in the winter to ensure they flower at the right time during the spring.

The revolt of the plants: The arctic melts when plants stop breathing
A joint research team from POSTECH and the University of Zurich identifies a physiologic mechanism in vegetation as cause for Artic warming.

How plants forget
New work published in Nature Cell Biology from an international team led by Dr.

Ordering in? Plants are way ahead of you
Dissolved carbon in soil can quench plants' ability to communicate with soil microbes, allowing plants to fine-tune their relationships with symbionts.

When good plants go bad
Conventional wisdom suggests that only introduced species can be considered invasive and that indigenous plant life cannot be classified as such because they belong within their native range.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Can plants tell us something about longevity?
The oldest living organism on Earth is a plant, Methuselah a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) (pictured below) that is over 5,000 years old.

Read More: Plants News and Plants Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.