Canadian Light Source Synchrotron takes Tomatosphere™ to the Next Level

2015-07-14

Synchrotron

Throughout the spring, thousands of classrooms across Canada participating in the TomatosphereTM program were planting and growing two sets of tomato seeds. One set was exposed to space-like conditions while the other was a control set. Close examination of the germination rate of these two types of seeds gave students a chance to determine if space conditions such as extreme temperatures or being placed in a vacuum has any affect on tomato seeds and ultimately, tomatoes grown in space.

Now imagine examining the tomato plants grown from space seeds at a molecular level with a team of real-life scientists. That was the experience of five students from Lloydminster Comprehensive High School in Lloydminster Alberta in June.

The students were part of the Canadian Light Source’s Students on the Beamlines (SotB) program for high school students. Through the program, students had the unique opportunity to use Canada’s only synchrotron. The synchrotron, stationed at the University of Saskatchewan, is a source of brilliant light used to gather information about the structural and chemical properties of materials at the molecular level.

The SotB program gives students a chance to design and develop their own scientific experiment that involves real-life science. The team of students from Lloydminster Comprehensive High School used the TomatosphereTM program to examine the affects of seeds exposed to cosmic radiation. This June marked the second generation of tomato plants examined by Lloydminster students at the synchrotron.

Rylee Prescesky, a Grade 12 student at Lloydminster, examined the plants at the synchrotron in 2014 and returned this year to review the second generation of TomatosphereTM plants.

“I’ve known about the TomatosphereTM program since I was in Grade 6, so I knew you could grow space tomatoes and analyze results,” said Prescesky. “When I heard about the opportunity to go to the synchrotron last year [to examine the space plants], I jumped on board.”

In 2014, experiments were done to determine the elemental composition and speciation of iron in plant parts from both the control and space plants.

“We ended up finding that there were two different speciations of iron within the [space] plants,” said Prescesky.

The students also found that tomato plants grown from irradiated seeds showed differences in height, number of leaves and number of stomata.

“We wanted to see if those differences carried on into the second generation of the controlled and space plants,” said Prescesky. “We read research that said there are mutations that can occur when the plants are exposed to cosmic radiation and I wanted to see if our plants would permanently mutate and transfer on.”

This year, the team had a chance to find out if the second generation of space tomato plants included the mutated hereditary traits.

“We found there are hereditary traits that have transferred over. When looking at the iron concentration in the plants and the different proteins, [we found] they were higher in most parts of the plants as well as polysaccharides and sugars,” said Prescesky. “There were far more differences than we expected throughout the plant.”

As for their practical learning experience, the students discovered what it’s like to study science in the real world.

“[The project] was a reality check as to what real science actually is. It doesn’t involve people standing around in lab coats making beakers fizzle,” said Wajeeha Hassan, another Lloydminster student involved in the program.

“A project like this is cross-curricular,” said Blair Proctor, a senior physics teacher at Lloydminster and supervisor for the students. “Science in general is not categorized into three general categories. [With this project], students had the ability to study biology, to use equipment based in physics and also study chemistry.”

“They learned what science is like in real life,” said Proctor.

To learn more about the TomatosphereTM program, visit tomatosphere.letstalkscience.ca. For additional information about the Canadian Light Source’s Students on the Beamlines (SotB) program, visit http://www.lightsource.ca/for_students2.html.