While Chris Wolverton's research could influence the future of space exploration, the Ohio Wesleyan University botany professor says his focus remains on its more down-to-earth applications.

While Chris Wolverton's research could influence the future of space exploration, the Ohio Wesleyan University botany professor says his focus remains on its more down-to-earth applications.

NASA announced earlier this month that scientists on the International Space Station will conduct experiments key to Wolverton's research into gravity's effects on the development of plants.

Wolverton, a Delaware resident, said he was "shocked and thrilled" when he learned his proposal, submitted in early 2014, was selected.

"I shot up out of my chair and ran out into the hallway and was like, 'Yes! I got it!' " he said.

The research conducted in space will build on work Wolverton and his students have been conducting at OWU for years using the arabidopsis, a small, flowering plant commonly used in biology experiments.

Researchers have learned through experimentation that plants use starch-filled sacks to sense gravity as they develop. Wolverton has been studying a mutant variety of the arabidopsis that does not have the starch sacks.

While the mutant variety grows more erratically, Wolverton said research has shown the plant is still somewhat able to sense gravity without the sacks.

"The fact that it still senses gravity suggests there's a second gravity-sensing system in the plant," he said. "We want to know what that is."

Wolverton said the research conducted on the space station could help him determine just what that second system is and how it operates.

"We really need to eliminate gravity to do the next step," he said. "We want to take these mutant plants that don't sense gravity normally ... and we need to get them out of Earth's gravity and into microgravity to test exactly what they're sensing and how sensitive they are to it."

On the space station, normal arabidopsis plants will grow side by side with the mutant variety. The experiment will take advantage of the International Space Station's European Modular Cultivation System, an advanced piece of equipment that can control the amount of gravity, light and water the plants receive as they grow.

"We have to get out of the Earth's gravity, which is sort of this overwhelming signal, and see what it takes to activate this other system," Wolverton said.

The project is currently in a six- to 18-month review phase, during which Wolverton will work to show the experiment's feasibility and the equipment's appropriateness and reliability.

After that process is complete, the materials for the research eventually will be sent to the space station along with other supplies.

Wolverton said the entire project could take three or four years to complete.

In a press release announcing the project, NASA said the research could help the agency "develop the resources and measures necessary to ensure astronauts remain healthy as we venture beyond low-Earth orbit and head out to study an asteroid and eventually Mars."

Along with sustenance, Wolverton said NASA's rese-arch has shown the act of growing plants provides psychological benefits for astronauts.

Although he sees the possibility that his research will benefit future space travel as intriguing, Wolverton said his focus is largely on how plants grow on earth.

"I'm much more of a basic biologist," he said. "I want to know how it works."

Wolverton said plants' responses to gravity seem to be tied into an overarching system that determines how the plants react to light, nutrients, water and other stimuli. If scientists understand more about how plants respond to gravity, they will know more about the overall system.

Wolverton said that discovery eventually could lead to breakthroughs such as plants that respond to drought by growing more lateral roots or seeking water more efficiently.

"Even buying an extra two days of ability to grow during a drought is going to increase yields (immensely)," he said.

Along with the ability to receive data from space -- something Wolverton said was priceless -- NASA will provide about $215,000 in grant funding for research on OWU's campus. Wolverton said the funding will allow him to hire five or six students per year to assist him with the project.

Wolverton said after NASA announced his research would be continued in space, dozens of former students reached out to him to offer their congratulations. He said he was quick to point out that they played a significant role in advancing the project to this point.

"Whenever they would write and say, 'Hey, that's great for you,' I'd say, 'Well, you have a piece of this,' " he said.