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Tomato mutations not as extreme as expected

Published Oct. 13, 2005

A five-year voyage aboard a satellite produced no Teenage Mutant Ninja Tomatoes, but scientists said some seeds grew into plants that were stunted, striped or doomed. Researchers reporting on how space affected the seeds, flown on the Long Duration Exposure Facility, or LDEF, said this week that the radiation had a less serious effect on the life forms than expected.

Some mutations were expected, but were "very, very infrequently reported," said Doris K. Grigsby, an Oklahoma State University researcher who coordinated a program in which school children nationwide (including the Tampa Bay area) planted more than 18,000 tomato seeds that had flown in space.

The reports came during a conference attended by more than 400 LDEF researchers who are studying how the space environment affected metals and other materials during five years in orbit.

LDEF is a six-sided cylinder, 30 feet long and 14 feet in diameter. Arrayed along its sides and ends were 86 experiment trays containing the test materials. NASA launched the craft on a shuttle in 1984 and returned it to Earth on Jan. 20, 1990.

Jim Alston of Park Seed Co. of Greenwood, S.C., the firm that packed the seeds, said the fruit of space-exposed seeds all tasted normal and had good size and color.

The mutations that occurred mostly affected the leaves and blossoms of the plants, he said. Alston said among the strangest mutation found were tomato plants that developed variegated leaves and flower buds. In these plants, some leaf parts were a normal green and others were white, totally lacking in chlorophyll.

Grigsby said other mutations were plants with long central stalks and no fruit; plants with leaves growing where flowers were supposed to blossom; and short plants with stunted leaves and no fruit.

Most of the mutations prevented plants from producing fruit, so the genetic change will not be passed to a new generation.