Green light for life on Mars

By
Wednesday, 06 February, 2002


Scientists at Australia's national university have developed a plant that could help transform Mars from barren red planet to a green oasis.

The genetically modified plant would be able to survive in the low-oxygen high-carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere.

Professor John Andrews and Dr Spencer Whitney from the Research School of Biological Sciences (RSBS) at ANU, led the first team to successfully replace a key enzyme of photosynthesis that converts carbon dioxide to plant sugar.

Professor Andrews said they had genetically inserted a bacterial version of Rubisco, which is able to operate in an atmosphere much like that on Mars. In the meantime, however, the researchers have a more down-to-earth reason for their research.

The research was done to show that plants could be modified to grow better in future possible Earth conditions caused by the greenhouse effect. Professor Andrews said that, if they could insert a more efficient form of Rubisco, they would create plants that grow better with less water and fertiliser.

The Rubisco gene is found in three major forms — bacterial, red and green. Only green Rubisco is found in plants, however Professor Andrews said red Rubisco, normally found in red seaweed, had evolved faster and was more suited to present and future conditions. Current climate predictions indicate the planet is likely to be hotter and richer in carbon dioxide in decades to come.

The major challenge the researchers face in creating plants with red Rubisco is their ability to make it function in plant cells. "By the time we have sorted out this issue there should not be any impediments to making all the major crop plants more efficient and suited to greenhouse conditions with red Rubisco," Prof. Andrews said.

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