LOS ANGELES, California — Growing food in space can do more than just feed astronauts. Studies of space and its effect on seeds are leading scientists to develop high-yielding strains of plants that can alleviate food insecurity on Earth. After decades of exploring this avenue of research, China is making one of the largest contributions to the list of spaceborne crops to date.
Rice From Heaven
It began with China’s Chang’e-5 probe taking on a 40-gram shipment of rice as a passenger for its journey to the moon in November 2020. A period of 23 days between departure and return would ensure that the seeds have sufficient exposure to the conditions of outer space for the journey to have an effect.
Now, according to China’s Global Times coverage on July 11, 2021, around 2,000 of the “rice from heaven” plants are reaching maturity and producing new seeds for researchers looking for genetic changes. These spaceborne crops will undergo a selection process wherein desirable traits such as dense yields or environmental resilience will allow specimens that pass such criteria a future in large-scale production while enriching the diversity of hybrid seed banks.
Speaking to the Global Times, Xue Lei, an expert in rice breeding in Panjin, China, says “It will take a few more generations and go through a series of tests, comparisons and regional trials before passing provincial – and state-level reviews.” A lack of immediacy in the process of introducing the benefits of growing rice in space belies the level of progress over decades of research and crop breeding.
Rice is only one of many crops that China experiments with in the nation’s attempts to enhance yields with exposure to space. Of this number, “hundreds” of strains from a variety of plant species serve as a gross output for China’s farmers as part of a constant effort to leverage genetic improvements into a source of food security for rural populations.
These spaceborne crops, undergoing a process that China Daily dubs “space mutagenesis,” are the product of a combination of new factors and the removal of old factors when facing conditions outside the planet:
- Exposure to solar radiation without dilution from the atmosphere.
- A lack of exposure to geomagnetic fields from Earth.
- Negligible effects from gravity.
Testing whether abnormal conditions such as chemical treatment or exposure to radiation can induce changes in a plant traces back to the 1920s, with commercial applications since then allowing for more than 2,500 varieties of superior crops. Unlike improvements from genetic modification, strains from exposing plants to specific conditions exhibit new traits in a more random fashion, trading precision for the ability to breed better crops in a shorter amount of time.
The Agricultural Space Race
In light of global population growth curves showing an increasing need to address global hunger, space and its potential as a source of beneficial plant evolution is attracting the interest of other countries with an airspace presence, such as the United States. As is the case with China, international scientific communities such as those from The University of Queensland recognize that pursuing mutagenesis to catch up with the needs of food security is a more efficient route than lengthy genetic transplants.
Another advantage to selecting from a series of random traits is the possibility of finding new ones, according to Dr. Lee Hickey of The University of Queensland. With several desirable traits requiring an extensive round of cross-breeding due to a presence found only in wild strains, allowing the traits to emerge under different circumstances can bypass the need to rely on genetic diversity to innovate.
Space agencies such as NASA are, therefore, making their own forays into advancing food security through spaceborne crops. In 2018, NASA made its own contribution in the form of wheat. NASA’s success comes full circle from Utah State University’s success in the 1980s at breeding a variety of wheat dubbed “Apogee.” Capable of harnessing a full 24 hours of sunlight for rapid growth, Apogee became a stepping stone for NASA’s “speed breeding.” Three decades of research are now resolving into varieties of wheat that can reach maturity far more quickly than wild strains.
Outside the Box
An approach to getting the most out of spaceborne crops is focusing on aspects of their environment that do not occur in mutagenesis that typically takes place on Earth, namely, microgravity. NASA foresees that its work with plant growth in space may lead to breakthroughs that increase crop resilience in vulnerable climates. By isolating aspects of plant biology, such as calcium growth that allows the plant to sense and adapt to gravity, improving on these mechanisms can pave the way for crops with a far greater likelihood of recovery when a disaster increases their vulnerability.
Practical experience in eliciting tangible results from spaceborne crops means that countries looking to combat food insecurity are finding the confidence to partner with commercial ventures. The Abu Dhabi Investment Office is reaching out to the space service company known as Nanoracks to open a research office in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) devoted entirely to researching space mutagenesis.
Long-term goals for the UAE involve reducing its heavy dependency on food imports, which accounts for 90% of its food supply. With these interests in mind, Nanoracks now devotes its time to breeding crops capable of adapting to the UAE’s conditions of arid soil and minimal water.
Overall, spaceborne crops have the potential of reducing global hunger in a world with growing food insecurity rates. As such, spaceborne crops may play a positive role in contributing to achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and accelerating global poverty reduction as a whole.
– Samuel Katz