What started as a science experiment to grow plants in space has blossomed into a drought-resistant, nutritionally rich tomato — patent pending.
Mariya Khodakovskaya was a researcher at North Carolina State University when she created a genetically altered tomato seed designed to better withstand the rigors of space. The seeds were flown to the International Space Station in August 2007.
Though they successfully germinated, the plants didn't last long.
"The seedlings grew for a short period, and then they got no taller and died," said Chris Brown, a plant biologist at North Carolina State University.
The team strongly suspected that the problem was not microgravity, per se, but adverse growing conditions, such as a lack of air circulation, Brown said.
"We think they died due to a lack of air flow," he said.
The space plants were contained in special chambers designed by BioServe Space Technologies, a non-profit NASA-sponsored research center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The chambers contained a solution of nutrients that would feed the plants as long as there was moisture present.
While the space experiment was a bust, the transgenic seeds blossomed on Earth, producing plants that could survive severe drought.
"Three weeks without water will kill most tomato plants. The transgencis came back, which is really cool and has huge implications for Earth agriculture," Brown told Discovery News.
Khodakovskaya, a plant physiologist who now operates her own lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says she has since developed a new breed that in addition to tolerating draught, produces a leafy plant with fruit high in lycopene, an antioxidant. Researchers believe antioxidants are important in preventing cancer and other chronic diseases.
Khodakovskaya and colleagues at Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas are preparing to patent their technology, which involves adding some new genes to the basic tomato.
The fruit, however, has yet to be put to the ultimate test — taste.
"When we grow the plants we use some chemicals, and I was advised not to eat it," Khodakovskaya told Discovery News.