Scientists have sent a batch of seeds toward the International Space Station to help create new strains of agricultural plants resistant to climate change.
Seeds of the nutritious grain sorghum together with arabidopsis, a plant commonly used for genetic experiments, are on their way to the orbital outpost aboard the uncrewed Cygnus cargo vehicle, which lifted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Monday (Nov. 7). The Cygnus will arrive at the orbiting lab on Wednesday (Nov. 9), provided it's able to overcome the glitch that has prevented the freighter from deploying one of its two solar arrays.
For a period of three months, the seeds will be exposed to microgravity, cosmic radiation and very low temperatures outside the International Space Station. The goal of the experiment is to induce genetic mutations that could make the plants more resilient to climate fluctuations resulting from climate change, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which together with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization oversees the experiment, said in a statement.
This technique of creating new breeds of agricultural plants via off-Earth experiments is known as space mutagenesis and has mostly been used in China. The space station experiment is the first of its kind for IAEA, which has for many decades been developing a similar technique, known as nuclear mutagenesis that uses short bursts of high-energy radiation in ground-based labs to induce similar changes in DNA.
"I am hopeful this experiment will bring about breakthroughs: results that we share freely with scientists and new crops that help farmers adapt to climate change and boost food supplies," IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement.
After the seeds return to Earth, scientists will germinate them and grow them into seedlings, which will be screened for traits that might make them better suited to deal with drought and heat compared to the parental generation. The best-performing seeds will then be put through several rounds of breeding to maximize desirable features, including the ability to deal with climate-related challenges. IAEA and FAO plan to distribute the new crop varieties to farmers in developing countries who are hit hardest by the unpredictable weather fluctuations that climate change causes and intensifies.
"Millions of vulnerable smallholder food producers across the planet urgently require resilient, high-quality seeds adapted to increasingly challenging growing conditions," FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said in the statement. "Innovative science like space breeding of improved crop varieties can help pave the road to a brighter future of better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life."
According to the Special Report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the stability of the world’s food supply will decrease in the future. People in regions already suffering from poverty and overpopulation will be the most affected, the report said. IAEA and FAO hope that the new space-bred varieties could be part of the solution "to sustain production and food quality" in the future, the agencies said in the statement.
FAO and IAEA have previously developed over 3,400 crop varieties using nuclear mutagenesis, which are now being used by farmers across 70 countries. The researchers also want to study the differences between the space-flown seeds and those irradiated by the more potent but shorter bursts of high-energy rays in ground-based labs.
The launch took place just one day after the beginning of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also called COP27, which is currently being held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.
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Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.