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Tomato project fighting drought, disease


May 8, 2009
By Marg Land


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tomatoes04May 8, 2009, Little Rock, Ark. – A team of scientists at the University
of Arkansas are developing a tomato plant hearty enough to grow in
space and survive droughts and disease.

May 8, 2009, Little Rock, Ark. – A team of scientists at the University of Arkansas are developing a tomato plant hearty enough to grow in space and survive droughts and disease.

tomatoes04 
  

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.

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Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya, assistant professor of applied science, and Dr. Stephen Grace, associate professor of biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), plus researchers at Arkansas State University and the 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,” Dr. 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.”

A year when she was affiliated with North Carolina State University, Dr. 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.

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,” Dr. 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.