Possibility of Space Farming After ‘Magic Plant’ Discovery

Nov 04, 2015 01:00 PM EST | By Danilyn Miravalles

In the recent sci-fi movie, 'The Martian', the main character (played by Hollywood actor Matt Damon) used his knowledge as a botanist to grow food in an artificial environment in order to survive in space.

As published in Science Daily, Professor Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at QUT's Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, discovered the gene in the ancient Australian native tobacco plant Nicotiana benthamiana, known as Pitjuri to indigenous Aboriginals tribes, which has been used for decades as a model plant upon which to test viruses and vaccines.

"This plant is the 'laboratory rat' of the molecular plant world," said Pofessor Waterhouse. "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 and looking through historical records we have been able to determine that the original plant came from the Granites area near the Western Australia and Northern Territory border, close to where Wolf Creek was filmed."

"We know, through using a molecular clock and fossil records, that this particular plant has survived in its current form in the wild for around 750,000 years."

Lead analyst Dr Julia Bally said that determining the exact species had driven scientists on a journey to figure out how the plant succeed last in the wild for such a drawn out stretch of time. The discovery may contribute widely on the future 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," quoted Dr. Bally.

"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," she added.

According to Professor Waterhouse, the researchers could utilize this discovery to explore other niche or sterile growing environments where plants were kept safe from diseases- and space was a captivating choice. These findings would be meaningful for genetic studies in the future.

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