Climate Change

Food race: These space seeds can help grow climate-resilient crops

This is the first feasibility study by global agencies to determine the effect of cosmic radiation, microgravity and extreme

By Arya Rohini
Published: Tuesday 18 April 2023
The SpaceX CRS-27 cargo craft carried the seeds from the International Space Station to Earth. Photo: FAO.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have been speeding up research for almost 60 years to develop new climate-tolerant agricultural crop varieties.

In a new milestone, two varieties of seeds — arabidopsis and sorghum — sent to space to make them climate-tolerant by exposing them to harsher surroundings last year returned to the Earth on March 4, 2023. Plants naturally evolve to thrive in their surroundings, but in the past few decades, they have been struggling to keep up with the current pace of climate change. 

The SpaceX CRS-27 cargo craft, which carried the seeds from the International Space Station to the Earth, had a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of Florida, the United States.

Watch video: China became the first country to sprout a seed on the moon

Now, scientists at IAEA and FAO will examine the possibilities of developing resilient crops that can help provide sufficient food amid a climate crisis. They will also examine the impacts of cosmic radiation on accelerating the natural genetic adaptation of much-needed crops.

This is the first feasibility study by these organisations to determine the effect of cosmic radiation, microgravity and extreme temperatures on plant genomes and biology.

The IAEA anchored sorghum and arabidopsis seeds to a tiny metal box attached to a spacecraft to expose them to increasingly intense solar radiation. Increased radiation creates genetic changes that would help them withstand greater temperatures, arid soils, diseases and rising sea levels.

Arabidopsis and sorghum are chosen as a large bank of scientific data on these crops is already available for comparison. Arabidopsis, a type of cress (a plant of the cabbage family) that is easy and inexpensive to grow and produces many seeds, will be tested for drought, salt and heat tolerance.

Also read: First life to sprout on the Moon is already dead

The researchers will also examine sorghum for traits that make it robust enough to withstand climate change. Sorghum, a nutrient-rich cereal grain, can thrive on parched terrains. Prior to the analysis, the next generation of both seeds will be grown. As Arabidopsis grows more quickly, preliminary findings may be ready in October 2023, FAO said in a press release.

“The cosmic crops project is a very special one. This is science that could have a real impact on people’s lives in the not-too-distant future, by helping us grow stronger crops and feed more people,” said IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi in the press release.

The seeds will now set off for Vienna, where they will be screened and examined for desired features at the joint FAO / IAEA laboratory. Before arriving at the labs, the seeds will go through a phytosanitary import procedure, which is necessary to reduce the risk of new pests while transporting plant material over national borders.

“Now that the seeds are back on Earth, we can see the effects of cosmic radiation, microgravity and extreme temperatures and compare them with those induced in our joint laboratories,” said FAO director-general QU Dongyu.

Also read: An interview of an astrobiologist on the matter

Global warming is making it difficult for farmers to sustain yields. The rising costs for essential grains and political instability have been aggravating it. North Africa has been undergoing a severe drought that could reduce local wheat yields and global demand.

“Most astrobotany until now has been to test how plants can be grown to feed astronauts for eventual space colonies. This experiment is different because it is designed to help people on Earth adapt to climate change,” Shoba Sivasankar, the IAEA’s head of genetics and plant breeding, had said.

Rising temperatures and weather disruptions have slashed global food production by almost 13 per cent since 1961, according to recent United Nations estimates. With 870 new varieties being grown, rice is the most frequently exposed crop to radiation. The productivity of the staple crop of half the world’s population has decreased due to increasingly dry circumstances.

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