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 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.
Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya, assistant professor of applied science, and Dr. Stephen Grace, associate professor of biology, at UALR – the University of Arkansas at Little Rock – 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.”
The scientists believe future investments will promote collaborative partnerships between UALR and private and public institutions throughout Arkansas that will make UALR more competitive in attracting research dollars to further expand undergraduate and graduate studies in biology, chemistry, environmental sciences, and related disciplines.
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.
Dr. 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.
Dr. Grace works on the biochemistry of flavonoids, another important group of plant phytochemicals that act as health promoting antioxidants. Flavonoids have shown promise in protection against coronary heart disease, neuron damage, certain cancers, and other age-related diseases.
“For this reason, there is great interest in developing crops with optimized levels and composition of these high value natural products,” Grace said. “Our group studies the light regulation of flavonoid synthesis in tomato in order to develop strategies to increase flavonoid levels for improved nutritional content.”
Other scientists working on the project are Dr. Nawab Ali, research associate professor in UALR’s Graduate Institute of Technology; Dr. Fabricio Medina-Bolivar of Arkansas State University; and Dr. J.D. Swanson of the University of Central Arkansas. Undergraduate and graduate students at each institution are involved in research projects directed at enhancing nutritional and pharmaceutical value of crops by genetic approaches.
“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.