Farming on Mars: New Plant Gene May Open the Door for Space-Based Food Production

First Posted: Nov 03, 2015 09:56 AM EST

In The Martian, Mark Watney grows potatoes in space. Now, scientists may have discovered the gene that will open the door for space-based food production in the future.

In this latest study, the researchers were actually tracing the history of the Pitjuri plant, which for decades has been used by geneticists as a model plant upon which to test viruses and vaccines.

"This plant is the 'laboratory rat' of the molecular plant world," said Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at QUT, in a news release. "We think of it as a magical plant with amazing properties. We now know that in 1939 its seeds were sent by an Australian scientist to a scientist in America and have been passed from lab to lab all over the world."

By sequencing its genome, the researchers determined the original planet came from the Granites area near the Western Australia and Northern Territory border. With fossil records, the researchers determined that this plant species has survived in its current form in the wild for about 750,000 years.

What's interesting, though, is that this plant could be the key to plant biotechnology research.

"The plant has lost its 'immune system' and has done that to focus its energies on being able to germinate and grow quickly, rapidly flower, and set seed after even a small amount of rainfall," said Julia Bally, the lead researcher. "Its focus is on creating small flowers but large seeds and on getting these seeds back into the soil in time for the next rain. The plant has worked out how to fight drought-its number one predator-in order to survive through generations."

So what does this mean for growing plants in space? In theory, researchers can use this discovery to investigate niche or sterile growing environments where plants are protected from disease-such as space. This, in particular, has implications for future genetic research of plants.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Plants.

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