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May 3, 2023
By Hardin YoungAssistant Director of Research CommunicationsUniversity of Arkansas Relations
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Andy Weir’s bestselling 2011 book, “The Martian,” features botanist Mark Watney’s efforts to grow food on Mars after he becomes stranded
there. While Watney’s initial efforts focus on growing potatoes, new research presented
at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference by a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Arkansas suggests
future Martian botanists like Watney may have a better option: growing rice.
As outlined in the team’s abstract, “Rice Can Grow and Survive in Martian Regolith
with Challenges That Could be Overcome Through Control of Stress-Related Genes,” one
of the biggest challenges to growing food on Mars is the presence of perchlorate salts,
which have been detected in the planet’s soil and are generally considered to be toxic
Vibha Srivastava, professor of plant biotechnology with the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station
within the crop, soil and environmental sciences department, served as mentor for the team of University of Arkansas researchers, which includes
Peter James Gann, a doctoral student in cell and molecular biology; Abhilash Ramachandran, a post-doctoral fellow at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences; Yheni Dwiningsih, a post-doctoral associate in plant sciences; and Dominic Dharwadker,
an undergraduate student in the Honors College.
The experiment station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division
The team of researchers were able to simulate Martian soil using basaltic-rich soil
mined from the Mojave Desert, called the Mojave Mars Simulant, or MMS, which was developed
by scientists from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The team then grew three varieties of rice, including one wild-type and two gene-edited
lines with genetic mutations that better enable them to respond to stress, such as
drought, sugar starvation or salinity. These varieties were grown in the MMS, as well
as a regular potted mix and a hybrid of the two. While plants were able to grow in
the Martian simulant, they were not as developed as those grown in the potting soil
and hybrid mix. Replacing just a quarter of the Martian simulant with potting soil
resulted in improved development.
The team also experimented with the amount of perchlorate in the soil, finding that
3 grams per kilogram was the threshold beyond which nothing would grow, while mutant
strains could still root in 1 gram per kilogram.
Their findings suggest that there might be a way forward for genetically modified
rice to find purchase in Martian soil.
Next steps will include experimenting with a newer Martian soil simulant called the
Mars Global Simulant, as well as other rice strains that have increased tolerance
for higher salt concentrations. An important part of the research will be determining
to what degree perchlorate may be leeching into the plant from the soil. Farther down
the road, the researchers would like to introduce rice into a closed habitat chamber
and place it in a Mars simulation chamber that replicates the temperature and atmosphere
of the planet.
Whether humans ever colonize Mars, the team’s research could have applications here
on Earth. Ramachandran noted that he spoke with an Australian researcher from an area
where the soil had high salinity and saw their work as a potential way to grow food
there. He added, “We could use Earth as a terrestrial analog before the seeds ever
get sent to Mars.”
Gann said that the project began when he met Ramachandran for coffee in the student
“He was new here at the university, and we shared the things we were doing in our
respective laboratories,” Gann said. “Since he works on planetary science, and I specialize
in cell and molecular biology, we decided to try out plants.”
They were joined by co-authors Dwiningsih, Dharwadker, and Srivastava, who has a joint
appointment with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“From my first talk with Abhi, we came to a consensus that Dr. Srivastava would be
the most appropriate and best mentor for this work with her extensive experience in
plant biotechnology and deep understanding of gene editing,” Gann said. “In her laboratory,
where I am currently working towards my doctoral degree, they have developed multiple
mutant rice plants that can perform better under several environmental stresses.”
Since conditions on Mars are known to be stressful for living organisms like rice
plants, Gann said the resources available in Srivastava's lab were their best asset
to move forward with the work.
"Dr. Vibha's wisdom in conducting research assured us that she can lead us in the
right direction to come up with meaningful and useful results,” Gann said.
Srivastava said she was initially “hands off” in the research but became involved
when she learned that rice would have to overcome salt stress to be able to germinate
in Martian soil.
“We have gene-edited rice lines in our lab that are either more sensitive, or tolerant,
to environmental stresses and I suggested it would be interesting to test their performance
in the Martian soil,” Srivastava said. “I am happy to work with them and very proud
that they came together to work on this very interesting project. My focus is to develop
better rice for the earth, but if our rice could also be used for space agriculture,
Gann is also pleased with how his initial conversation with Ramachandran has turned
“Relevant and interesting research can emanate from talking to strangers over a cup
of coffee or a glass of beer,” he said, before adding: “Ain't that cool?”
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural
Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture,
visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk. To learn about extension programs in Arkansas,
contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen
agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption
of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative
Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work
within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas
System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension
and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity,
sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran
status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative
Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive
education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes
more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development,
discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for
professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the
few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A
works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.
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Media Contact: Hardin YoungAssistant Director of Research CommunicationsUniversity Relations(479) firstname.lastname@example.org