Tomatoes on Mars? Student’s genetic research could one day help space travelers

UA Little Rock student Diamond McGehee presents her research at a 2017 NASA conference in Washington, D.C.

Genetic research by a University of Arkansas at Little Rock student that could one day aid Mars colonists was one of only 10 student projects highlighted during a national NASA Space Grant conference.

Diamond McGehee, an applied bioscience Ph.D. student from Conway, represented Arkansas and the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium after she was selected by the National Space Grant Directors committee.

On March 2, McGehee showcased her work in the first-ever Julius Dasch Student Poster Presentation at the 2017 National Space Grant Directors meeting in Washington, D.C.

“It was an exciting, illuminating experience,” McGehee said.

She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about research from other states that — as with her work — could eventually be used in a NASA mission to Mars.

Her presentation was titled “Metabolomic Analysis with Focus on Anticancerous Metabolites in InsP 5-ptase Expressing Tomato Fruits via Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS).”

Essentially, her research explores ways to modify the genes of tomatoes so that the fruit produces more nutritious cell-protecting compounds such as antioxidants.

“What we’re trying to do is to make a food source that is more protective from radiation,” McGehee said.

On Earth, the atmosphere offers a radiation buffer that’s largely absent in space — potentially leading to an increase in problems such as cataracts and cancer, McGehee said.

McGehee hopes her tomato research not only leads to additional nutritional protection but also will help produce plants that are more hardy and able to adapt to foreign environments.

Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya, a UA Little Rock professor and the graduate coordinator of the Department of Biology, is McGehee’s faculty mentor and the research principal investigator.

The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium, which is based at UA Little Rock and includes 17 four-year colleges and universities, sponsored McGehee’s work.

The National Space Grant and Fellowship Program is a program of the NASA Office of Education.

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