From Gravity and the Organism to Gravity and the Cell

Allan H Brown


This workshop on Gravity and the Cell was modeled on a 1968 conference on Gravity and the Organism. Each conference tried to identify the most salient scientific questions about how gravity is important to living systems. In the roughly two decades between the conferences there have been impressive advances in experimental methods, but the major scientific questions that have driven their applications to problems of gravitational biology, i.e., our broad research goals, remain much the same. In the case of plant research, improvements and extensions of biochemical techniques for investigating the ways organisms use environmental (g-force) information in salubrious ways has kept pace with progress in plant biochemistry. We now know much more about the roles of organic and inorganic substances that plants employ for information transfer and growth regulation and about the avenues and mechanisms for transport of those key substances within organisms. We have seen the acceptance of a "local control" concept that regulation of g-responses depends critically on plasmodesmata and gap junctions which allow plants and animals to throttle the transport of growth regulators across tissue boundaries often, especially in the case of plants, far removed from the morphological regions of concentration of statocytes that were once thought to be the exclusive bioaccelerometers used by plants. NASA's sponsorship of ground-based research in gravitational biology has served as important underpinning for orbital flight programs in space biology. The currently most noteworthy research area of ignorance is the mechanism by which the physical event of g-force susception becomes the biological process of g-force perception. Only rarely has it been possible to perform a definitive test of a theory of mechanism of gravity perception. Therefore, experimental research efforts in gravitational physiology still are essentially dependent on exploratory studies for which stimulus/response experiments require experimental manipulation of test subjects' g-force environment. Many research efforts have focused narrowly on contrasting the responses of test subjects to only two gravitational environments, 1 g versus real or simulated zero g. Much less effort has been devoted to studies at other g levels. For experiments in gravitational physiology three rotating machines have made, and no doubt will continue to make, important contributions: the centrifuge, the clinostat, and, most of all, the orbiting space vehicle. Some research trends, viewpoints, and shifts of emphasis are discussed.

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