NC State researchers redesign life for Mars and beyond

October 25, 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.
-end-
Additional Media Contacts:
Dr. Wendy Boss, 919/515-3496
Dr. Amy Grunden, 919/513-4295

North Carolina State University

Related Plants Articles from Brightsurf:

When plants attack: parasitic plants use ethylene as a host invasion signal
Researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology have found that parasitic plants use the plant hormone ethylene as a signal to invade host plants.

210 scientists highlight state of plants and fungi in Plants, People, Planet special issue
The Special Issue, 'Protecting and sustainably using the world's plants and fungi', brings together the research - from 210 scientists across 42 countries - behind the 2020 State of the World's Plants and Fungi report, also released today by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

New light for plants
Scientists from ITMO in collaboration with their colleagues from Tomsk Polytechnic University came up with an idea to create light sources from ceramics with the addition of chrome: the light from such lamps offers not just red but also infrared (IR) light, which is expected to have a positive effect on plants' growth.

How do plants forget?
The study now published in Nature Cell Biology reveals more information on the capacity of plants, identified as 'epigenetic memory,' which allows recording important information to, for example, remember prolonged cold in the winter to ensure they flower at the right time during the spring.

The revolt of the plants: The arctic melts when plants stop breathing
A joint research team from POSTECH and the University of Zurich identifies a physiologic mechanism in vegetation as cause for Artic warming.

How plants forget
New work published in Nature Cell Biology from an international team led by Dr.

Ordering in? Plants are way ahead of you
Dissolved carbon in soil can quench plants' ability to communicate with soil microbes, allowing plants to fine-tune their relationships with symbionts.

When good plants go bad
Conventional wisdom suggests that only introduced species can be considered invasive and that indigenous plant life cannot be classified as such because they belong within their native range.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Can plants tell us something about longevity?
The oldest living organism on Earth is a plant, Methuselah a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) (pictured below) that is over 5,000 years old.

Read More: Plants News and Plants Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.