Scientists have identified a DNA sequence in an ancient Australian tobacco plant that enables it to survive in the country’s remote Outback. The discovery could offer clues to growing plants someday in another harsh environment—on the planet Mars, they said.
Nicotiana benthamiana, known as pituri to indigenous Aboriginal tribes who use it as chewing tobacco, underwent a genetic mutation roughly 750,000 years ago to help it thrive despite the extreme conditions of the Outback, says Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at Queensland University of Technology.
To focus the bulk of its energy on reproduction in an environment with very little rainfall, N. benthamiana, a relative of the common tobacco plant, lost its immune system, the natural protection that defends most living organisms against infection. Australia’s Outback region is so remote and arid that few infections exist there, Dr. Waterhouse says.
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