Chinese scientists are analyzing rice, Thale cress and other plants after the country's Shenzhou 14 astronaut crew cultivated samples in space and brought them back to Earth.
The astronauts cultivated rice and Thale cress seeds for 120 days, taking the seeds through the entire life cycle, from germination to reproduction.
These have now been delivered to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for testing, which includes looking at how the plants grew differently in microgravity compared with control samples here on Earth.
Zheng Huiqiong, a researcher at the Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Science under CAS, told Chinese broadcaster CCTV that growing the plants was a challenge for the astronauts.
"The space is very limited, and the whole environment is artificial. It is very difficult to complete the entire life cycle of the crop in an artificial environment. The biggest difficulty is to ensure that the plant makes it through every growth stage, and can grow normally," Zheng said.
China has experimented with rice and other plants in space for more than 30 years, by sending seeds into orbit for brief trips during which they are exposed to the higher radiation environment of low Earth orbit. After this process of "space mutagenesis," teams then look for rice with genetic mutations that enhance their yield or resistance to disease.
This time however, by looking at the entire life cycle of rice, scientists are more interested in learning about the potential of growing vegetables and food production for deep space travel.