Tomatoes in Space May Be Drought-resistant on Earth

Arkansas – home of thousands of backyard gardens, farmer’s markets, and a summer festival that pays annual homage to the tomato – also is home to a team of scientists based at University of Arkansas-Little Rock  (UALR) that is developing a tomato plant hearty enough to grow in space and surviving down-to-earth droughts and disease.

More than providing fresh produce for astronauts on extended missions to Mars, the research has important implications for developing crops resistant to drought and other stresses while improving the nutritional value of food.

Mariya Khodakovskaya, Ph.D., assistant professor of applied science, and Stephen Grace, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, at UALR and researchers at Arkansas State University and University of Central Arkansas are preparing to patent their new and effective ways to increase production of antioxidants in plants and make them more tolerant to stresses such as drought and disease.

“We are working now on tomatoes, but we are identifying mechanisms and genes that are responsible for other traits and can be used for other crops more important in countries that have droughts,” Khodakovskaya said. “It has implications for Earth agriculture as well as space agriculture, which is why the project has been funded for three years by Arkansas Space Grant Consortium.”

A year when she was affiliated with North Carolina State University, Khodakovskaya placed her experiment growing cherry tomatoes aboard the International Space Station. “It was the first transgenic tomato tested in space conditions,” she said.

Her transgenic tomato plants show dramatic increases in drought tolerance, vegetative biomass, and fruit lycopene concentration. Studies in Arkansas and worldwide have shown that antioxidants such as lycopene are important in the prevention of cancer and many other chronic diseases. These established tomato plants are an excellent model for identification of novel means to enhance production of lycopene and other antioxidants in plants.

Grace, who earned his Ph.D. at Duke University, has focused his research on diverse aspects of plant biology, including biochemical analysis of secondary metabolic pathways to environmental signaling mechanisms and the physiology of stress on plants.

He and Khodakovskaya’s cross-linked research projects are supported by grants from the P3 Research Center of Arkansas NSF EPSCoR Program – the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research – and the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium.

Khodakovskaya will identify key genes and gene networks involved in stress tolerance and activation of antioxidant production in tomato plants. Her team will also create new reproducible biological source of antioxidants by establishment of highly productive tomato “hairy roots” cultures. 

Other scientists working on the project are Nawab Ali, Ph.D., research associate professor in UALR’s Graduate Institute of Technology; Fabricio Medina-Bolivar, Ph.D., of Arkansas State University; and  J.D. Swanson, Ph.D., of the University of Central Arkansas.

“As soon as we develop a new tomato with drought tolerance and more antioxidants, we will test how it grows in space conditions,” Khodakovskaya said.

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