Plants naturally adapt to grow in challenging environments. Spontaneous natural mutations produce new traits, such as drought tolerance and disease resistance, that can help the plant thrive. But the Earth’s climate is changing faster than plants can evolve naturally, meaning many of the plants we depend on for food are under threat.
Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to the effects of changing climate conditions and while changes in temperature, rainfall patterns and frosts can extend a growing season or enable the cultivation of different crops, climate change also poses major challenges for agriculture.
Now scientists are turning to the vastness of space for solutions.
In 2022, the joint laboratories of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN sent seeds on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS). The goal: to induce genetic mutations in the seeds through exposure to cosmic rays and microgravity, which could help develop resilient crops capable of thriving in the face of the escalating climate crisis.
Seeds of a grain called sorghum, and a species of garden cress called Arabidopsis, spent several months on the ISS before being returned to Earth for analysis in April. Now the screening will begin to identify beneficial properties in the mutated seeds.
Shoba Sivasankar, head of Plant Breeding and Genetics at the joint FAO and IAEA Center of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, explains that scientists are able to artificially induce plant mutations on Earth using gamma rays and X-rays.
However, the space environment, which offers a broader spectrum of radiation and additional extremes such as microgravity and temperature fluctuations, has the potential to produce genetic changes that differ from, or are caused much more quickly than, those typically observed using terrestrial radiation sources.
“In space, the stress an organism faces would be at the highest level and beyond anything we can simulate on Earth,” explains Sivasankar. She adds that the radiation outside the ISS could be “more than a hundred times higher” than the natural radiation possible on Earth.
By selectively breeding plants grown from the mutated seeds, Sivasankar and her team hope to create new crop varieties.
“First, we are working to improve crop yields and productivity of crops such as grains, legumes, roots and tubers, for example cassava and sweet potato,” she says. “And then there’s the resilience of climate change — for example, resistance to increasing disease incidence, tolerance to climate phenomena such as drought or high heat, and increasing soil salinity due to saltwater intrusion or irrigation and evaporation.”
A global effort
Scientists have been sending seeds into space for decades. China has been using space radiation to induce genetic mutations in crops since the 1980s, exposing seeds to cosmic rays via satellites and balloons at high altitudes, reportedly enabling the production of giant peppers and improvements in wheat and rice.
There are many different kinds of seed aboard the International Space Station, while researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) are currently experimenting with growing seeds sent on a trip around the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
The MSU scientists are investigating the effect of extraterrestrial conditions on plant amino acids – the building block of proteins – and evaluating how that affects plant growth and development. The research could provide insight into the adaptability of plants in extreme environments and help us understand how crops could potentially be grown beyond Earth for long-duration space missions.
The private sector has also shown interest in the impact of spaceflight on plant seeds. In the United Arab Emirates, StarLab Oasis, an Abu Dhabi-based start-up, has announced plans to send quinoa seeds into space in hopes of boosting the genetic potential of a crop that holds promise for its nutritional value and adaptability in arid regions.
Sending seeds to space will contribute to “sustainability, climate change and food security on Earth,” StarLab Oasis co-founder Allen Herbert told CNN in 2022. “Space is a place where you have limited resources, limited energy and limited space. It’s the perfect place to do research and that same technology can be brought right back to Earth.”
It is the same hope of finding solutions to earthbound agriculture that drives Sivasankar, and the IAEA says the first results of its research could be available later this year.
“I have hope for the future of food security as technology comes to the forefront,” she says. “But food security isn’t just about genetics — we need a combination of all the technologies, and everyone needs to come together and work together.”
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