In the film version of "The Martian", the main character is trapped on the red planet and is forced to figure out how to grow food. He declares he is going to "science the s--t out of" the issue before instead engaging in regular old agriculture mixed with some engineering.
But science may soon help, researchers have discovered a gene that could open the door for space-based food production. Professor Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at QUT, discovered the gene in the ancient Australian native tobacco plant Nicotiana benthamiana, known as Pitjuri to indigenous Aboriginals tribes, which has been used for decades as a model plant upon which to test viruses and vaccines.
"This plant is the 'laboratory rat' of the molecular plant world," said Professor Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at QUT, "we think of it as a magical plant with amazing properties. We now know that in 1939 its seeds were sent by an Australian scientist to a scientist in America and have been passed from lab to lab all over the world. By sequencing its genome and looking through historical records we have been able to determine that the original plant came from the Granites area near the Western Australia and Northern Territory border.
"We know, through using a molecular clock and fossil records, that this particular plant has survived in its current form in the wild for around 750,000 years."
How did it survive in the wild for so long?
"The plant has lost its 'immune system' and has done that to focus its energies on being able to germinate and grow quickly, rapidly flower, and set seed after even a small amount of rainfall," said lead author Dr Julia Bally. "Its focus is on creating small flowers but large seeds and on getting these seeds back into the soil in time for the next rain. The plant has worked out how to fight drought -- its number one predator -- in order to survive through generations."
Scientists could use this discovery to investigate other niche or sterile growing environments where plants were protected from disease -- and space was an intriguing option.
"So the recent film "The Martian", which involved an astronaut stranded on Mars growing potatoes while living in an artificial habitat, had a bit more science fact than fiction than people might think," Waterhouse said.