Student: Raegan S. Hoefler, Undergraduate Student in Genetics, Iowa State University
Research Mentor: Thomas Peterson
Growing maize on Mars: Effects of Irradiation Induced Transposable Element Activity on Plant Survival and Development
In the recent movie, The Martian, the protagonist survives by growing a crop of potatoes while stranded on Mars. Is this possible? And how would the increased radiation levels affect Mars-grown plants and their progeny? In this project, the growing of crops on Mars will be simulated by exposing corn seedlings to high levels of radiation, typical of Mars, in order to observe the effects of radiation at the genomic level. In addition to inducing random point mutations and chromosome breaks, irradiation is hypothesized to activate endogenous Transposable Elements (TEs) embedded in the corn genome. TEs, which are sometimes referred to as Jumping Genes, are segments of DNA that have the ability to copy themselves and move within the genome. TEs are found in all organisms, but they are usually kept in an inactive state by host defense mechanisms. The activation of normally quiescent TEs by radiation can create mutations leading to a variety of effects on nearby genes, and may affect maize plant survival and yield in adverse conditions. This project includes researching radiation conditions in both the Martian atmosphere and soil, irradiating maize seedlings to simulate these conditions, and then preparing genomic DNA from both irradiated and non-irradiated seedlings. The genomic DNA samples will be sequenced, and the sequences analyzed by bioinformatics methods to identify new mutations caused directly by radiation, and indirectly through the activation of TEs.