"The bottom line is that we were able to produce the P. furiosus superoxide reductase gene in a model plant cell line and to show that the enzyme has the same function and properties of the native P. furiosus enzyme," Boss said. "The fact that the plant cells would produce a protein with all the properties of the P. furiosus protein opens new avenues for research in designing plants to survive and thrive in extreme conditions."
But people living on the Arctic Circle shouldn't be rushing out to buy palm trees just yet. It'll take years and much more study before plants will be able to survive outside of their usual habitats. Moreover, there could be deleterious side effects to this type of genetic manipulation. What's important, the researchers say, is the fact that P. furiosus and other extremophiles might be able to lend their beneficial traits to plants sometime in the future.
"This is very fundamental research," Boss said. "If we could add new genes to plants, we could potentially make the plants more resistant to extreme conditions such as drought and extreme temperatures that we have on Earth, but also to the extreme conditions that one might find on Mars."
Now that the concept of inserting a single gene from an extremophile into a plant has been proven, the researchers are working to insert associated genes in hopes of providing even more extreme-temperature protection to plants. And, they're involving more great minds to come up with more answers they've team-taught an honors undergraduate class called "Redesigning Living Organisms to Survive on Mars: Development of Virtual Plants" and plan to offer another class to investigate new mechanisms for reducing radiation damage in spring 2007.