A plant known to Aboriginals could help grow food in space

Plant geneticist Peter Waterhouse. Image: QUT

Scientists have discovered a gene within an Australian plant which could open the door for space-based food production.

The gene is in the Nicotiana benthamiana, a type of native tobacco plant known as Pitjuri to indigenous Australians.

Plant geneticist Peter Waterhouse made the discovery while tracing the history of the Pitjuri plant, which for decades has been used by geneticists as a model plant to test viruses and vaccines.

“This plant is the laboratory rat of the molecular plant world,” says Professor Waterhouse of QUT.

“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.”

In the latest research, scientists sequenced the plant’s genome. They found that the original plant came from the Granites area near the Western Australia and Northern Territory border, close to where the movie 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,” he says.

Professor Waterhouse explains the importance of the discovery of the DNA sequence within an Australian tobacco plant:

The scientists found that the plant is equivalent of the nude mouse used in medical research. The plant has lost its “immune system” so it can focus its energies on being able to germinate and grow quickly, rapidly flower and seed after even a little rainfall.

The plant focuses energy on creating small flowers but large seeds and on getting these seeds 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.”

Scientists could use this discovery to investigate other niche or sterile growing environments where plants were protected from disease, such as in space.

“So the recent film ‘The Martian’, which involved an astronaut stranded on Mars growing potatoes while living in an artificial habitat, had a bit more science fact than fiction than people might think,” he says.

Lead researcher Dr Julia Bally and Professor Waterhouse have lodged a patent on their study and a research paper has been published in the journal Nature Plant.

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