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"Magic" native Australian tobacco plant could be key to space-based food production

• http://www.gizmag.com

Scientists at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia have discovered a gene in an ancient Australian native tobacco plant that they say is the key to growing crops in space. The plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, has long been used in labs around the world to test viruses and vaccines due to the fact it has no immune system. Surprisingly, this trait has also led to the plant being extremely resilient, which is where space-based food production comes in.

Although the lack of an immune system leaves the plant prone to disease, it frees up energy that would otherwise be used for defense to be used to germinate and grow faster and produce bigger seeds. While this isn't necessarily advantageous in pathogen-rich environments, it does help the plant, which is known as Pitjuri to indigenous Aboriginal tribes, deal with its primary predator in the Granites area near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory – drought.

It is the plant's ability to rapidly set seed after even small amounts of rain that has helped it survive in the harsh Central Australia climate for around 750,000 years. It is also this rapid growing and germination ability that, if transferred to other plants, would be beneficial in sterile environment of space where there are no pathogens for it to contend with.

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