NC State Researchers Redesign Life for Mars and Beyond

Oct 18, 2005

Researchers at North Carolina State University are looking deep under water for clues on how to redesign plants for life deep in outer space.
Some of the stresses inherent with travel and life in space – extreme temperatures, drought, radiation and gravity, for example – are not easily remedied with traditional plant defenses.

So Dr. Wendy Boss, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Botany, and Dr. Amy Grunden, assistant professor of microbiology, have combined their expertise to transfer beneficial characteristics from a sea-dwelling, single-celled organism called Pyrococcus furiosus into model plants like tobacco and Arabidopsis, or mustard weed.

P. furiosus is one of Earth’s earliest life forms, a microbe that can survive in extreme temperatures. It grows and dwells in underwater sea volcanoes where temperatures reach more than 100 degrees Celsius, or that of boiling water. Occasionally, the organism is spewed out into near freezing deep-sea water.

The NC State research, funded for two years and $400,000 by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, entails extracting a gene – called superoxide reductase – from P. furiosus and expressing it in plants. That gene, one of nature’s best antioxidants, reduces superoxide, which in plants is a chemical signal given off when stressful conditions are encountered. This signal essentially puts the plant on alert, but staying on alert too long can be harmful: If not reduced quickly, the toxic superoxide will kill plant cells.

Since the superoxide reductase gene is not found in plants, Boss, an expert in plant metabolism and plant responses to stimuli, and Grunden, an expert in organisms that grow in extreme environments, wanted to use this genetic manipulation as a test run to gauge the feasibility of inserting a gene from an extremophile – an organism that survives, and thrives, in extreme environments – into a plant, and then seeing whether the gene would function the way it does in its original organism.

“The bottom line is that we were able to produce the P. furiosus superoxide reductase gene in a model plant cell line and to show that the enzyme has the same function and properties of the native P. furiosus enzyme,” Boss said. “The fact that the plant cells would produce a protein with all the properties of the P. furiosus protein opens new avenues for research in designing plants to survive and thrive in extreme conditions.”

But people living on the Arctic Circle shouldn’t be rushing out to buy palm trees just yet. It’ll take years and much more study before plants will be able to survive outside of their usual habitats. Moreover, there could be deleterious side effects to this type of genetic manipulation.

What’s important, the researchers say, is the fact that P. furiosus and other extremophiles might be able to lend their beneficial traits to plants sometime in the future.

“This is very fundamental research,” Boss said. “If we could add new genes to plants, we could potentially make the plants more resistant to extreme conditions such as drought and extreme temperatures that we have on Earth, but also to the extreme conditions that one might find on Mars.”

Now that the concept of inserting a single gene from an extremophile into a plant has been proven, the researchers are working to insert associated genes in hopes of providing even more extreme-temperature protection to plants. And, they’re involving more great minds to come up with more answers – they’ve team-taught an honors undergraduate class called “Redesigning Living Organisms to Survive on Mars: Development of Virtual Plants” and plan to offer another class to investigate new mechanisms for reducing radiation damage in spring 2007.

Source: North Carolina State University

Explore further: Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A new source for potassium fertilizer

Apr 10, 2014

Potassium-rich bananas are often grown in the Southern Hemisphere, in countries like Brazil, but farming banana trees requires potassium fertilizer obtained from mining potash in the Northern Hemisphere. ...

Laser researchers revolutionize aviation industry

Apr 07, 2014

(Phys.org) —Most people don't realize it, but the airplane they are flying on may be stronger and safer thanks to a pair of former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers who developed and commercialized ...

End of Windows XP support spells trouble for some

Apr 07, 2014

Microsoft will end support for the persistently popular Windows XP on Tuesday, and with an estimated 30 percent of businesses and consumers still using the 12-year-old operating system, the move could put ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

11 hours ago

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

17 hours ago

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

18 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

Low Vitamin D may not be a culprit in menopause symptoms

A new study from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) shows no significant connection between vitamin D levels and menopause symptoms. The study was published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopa ...