Philippine professor leads US research on growing rice on Mars

2023 May 18

Filipino biotechnology professor Peter James Gann of Mariano Marcos State University leads a University of Arkansas team in groundbreaking research on growing rice on Mars, with the help of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

A PROFESSOR from the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Ilocos Norte has led the groundbreaking research study on growing gene-edited rice on Mars that was conducted at the University of Arkansas (U of A) in the United States.

The study, which is a breakthrough in growing food on the Red Planet, was led by Prof. Peter James Icalia Gann. It suggests that rice can grow and survive in Martian regolith through control of stress-related genes and the toxic perchlorate salts in the planet’s soil.

MMSU information officer Daniel Tapaoan Jr. said Gann is a professor of biotechnology, molecular genetics and animal science at the MMSU College of Agriculture, Food and Sustainable Development.

A doctoral candidate in cell and molecular biology at the U of A under the Fulbright-Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) scholarship program, Gann is also one of the ambassadors of the American Society of Plant Biologists, a professional organization devoted to the advancement of plant sciences.

Gann’s study was presented at the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in March this year, and featured in top-tier magazines including Forbes, Science Daily and Science News in the US.

With the help of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the experiment, Gann and his team created a Martian simulant using basaltic-rich soil mined from the Mojave Desert.

His co-researchers were Abhilash Ramachandran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences; Yheni Dwiningsih, a postdoctoral associate in plant sciences; Dominic Dharwadker, an undergraduate student in the Honors College; and Vibha Srivastava, a professor in the U of A Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences.

Gann noted that in the Martian simulant, they grew three varieties of rice, including one wild-type and two gene-edited lines with genetic mutations that better enable them to respond to drought, sugar starvation and salinity.

“We also grew the same in a regular potted mix and a hybrid of the two,” he said, adding that they discovered that gene-edited rice plants grow well in the Martian simulant if a quarter of it is potting soil.

Gann said they also found that three grams of perchlorate per kilogram of Martian soil is the limit that any rice plant can grow.

After this, the team will experiment with newly developed Martian soil, and with other rice strains that have increased tolerance for higher salt concentrations, he said.

“Later on, we will place the gene-edited crops into a Mars simulation chamber that replicates the temperature and atmosphere of the planet,” Gann added.

Leander Domingo (The Manila Times)