Maize on Mars - A Student is Making "The Martian" a Reality

Raegan Hoefler, a junior in genetics at Iowa State University, is testing the effects of radiation on corn seedlings in a lab at Iowa State. The experiment involves exposing the seedlings to ultraviolet and x-ray irradiation levels similar to what would be found on Mars.

AMES, Iowa - Surrounded by a red rocky surface as far as the eye can see, you look up and gaze at the planet Earth in the distance. Your stomach growls and you realize it is time for dinner. Heading back to your colony, you harvest some corn from your garden and prepare it to eat.

Raegan Hoefler, a junior in genetics, is conducting a study to see if this garden scenario on Mars is a possibility. Hoefler received $7,000 from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.

Of the total, $2,000 was for a research grant to conduct an experiment inspired by the movie “The Martian.” Hoefler conducted the experiments with the aid of her advisor Thomas Peterson, professor of genetics, development and cell biology and Pioneer Chair in Maize Molecular Genetics.

The remaining $5,000 was awarded to Hoefler as a scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to undergraduate students pursuing research in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors that back NASA’s mission.The Iowa Space Grant Consortium is a part of NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. It supports research, education and outreach activities while hoping to improve Iowa’s future in STEM.

To receive the scholarship, Hoefler had to be willing to participate in a NASA-related, STEM research project.

Hoefler’s research is testing the effects of radiation levels on corn, a plant that might one day be grown in a Mars colony. The official title of her project is called: “Growing Maize on Mars: Effects of Irradiation Induced Transposable Element Activity on Plant Survival and Development.” She is exposing corn seedlings to radiation levels similar to what would be found on Mars.

The plants are exposed to both ultraviolet and x-ray irradiation. Hoefler administers UV radiation by using a germicidal lamp in the lab. The X-rays take place at the Mary Greeley Medical Center with a linear accelerator, which is used to provide radiation treatments to cancer patients.

“When people think of NASA, I don't think growing food to possibly sustain life on Mars necessarily comes to mind,” Hoefler said. “It also is interesting that our own ozone is depleting, so Earth may one day become more Martian-like in the future. We’ll all have to eat, so we’re seeing if this plant growth under these conditions is possible.”

In the movie “The Martian” a man is left behind on Mars after a space mission. The only way he can survive is to cultivate potatoes left behind. Hoefler is pulling inspiration from this movie to see if the story line is possible.

During the project, Hoefler looked at irradiation that is thought to activate transposable elements inside the corn genome. Transposable elements are sections of DNA that have the capability to copy themselves and move around within the genome. Transposable elements are usually kept inactive by the defense mechanisms of the host plant. By exposing transposable elements to radiation, Hoefler can examine whether it will affect nearby genes and the corn’s survival. In short, she will see how the plant handles a hostile environment. Hoefler will then sample DNA from the irradiated maize and sequence it. The sequencing will identify any new mutations caused directly by radiation and indirectly from the activation of transposable elements

Hoefler is gaining new skills and knowledge, thanks to the scholarship.

“I had to design my own research and read a lot of primary literature to find out what has already been done in this field,” Hoefler said. “I had to learn a lot about things I had no idea about, like radiation and space. Research is hard, and a lot of things can happen that you don’t count on.”

This project is ongoing. Hoefler is hoping to publish her findings as well as present them at undergraduate seminars.

After graduation, Hoefler is looking at either graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in plant genetics or law school to study biotechnology law.