Student: Raegan Hoefler, Undergraduate Student in Genetics, Iowa State University
Research Mentor: Dr. Thomas Peterson
In this research project, now spanning two years, I aim to determine if radiation levels typical of those on Mars can activate usually quiescent transposable elements (TEs) in the maize genome, of which they compose 80% of. TEs, which are sometimes referred to as Jumping Genes, are segments of DNA that can copy themselves and move within the genome. Active TEs are mutagenic and target protein-coding regions for insertion, and this movement can cause chromosome breakage and genome rearrangements.
To carry out this project, I irradiated the parental corn seedlings with both UV and x-rays to predetermined levels, grew the plants to maturity, collected tissue samples, prepared genomic DNA, and sent the DNA away for sequencing. I am currently using bioinformatic methods, utilizing the power of a high-performance computer, to compare the structural variation in the control genome vs. the irradiated genome. Analyzing the differences in structural variation for the two samples will allow us to determine what types of TEs were activated and where they excised/inserted due to the radiation. I will continue this pipeline of plant growth, processing, and bioinformatics for three consecutive generations of corn plants. The results of this project will indicate the feasibility of growing successive generations of fruitful crops in space. This is necessary because in the possibility of growing food on Mars, we must be able to produce a supply of seeds after each generation that will be able to develop into a new crop.