Revolutionizing Agriculture: Plants have a remarkable ability to adapt to challenging environments through natural mutations. These spontaneous genetic changes, such as drought tolerance and disease resistance, enable plants to thrive. However, the rapidly changing climate on Earth is outpacing the natural evolution of plants, posing a significant threat to our food sources.
The agricultural sector, in particular, is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. While shifts in temperature, rainfall patterns, and frost may offer some benefits like extended growing seasons or the possibility of cultivating new crops, they also introduce major challenges for farmers.
Seeking Innovative Solutions Beyond Earth
Now, scientists are looking to the vastness of space for answers. In 2022, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) joined forces to explore the potential of space in developing resilient crops. They sent seeds on a groundbreaking trip to the International Space Station (ISS) with the objective of inducing genetic mutations through exposure to cosmic radiation and microgravity. These mutations could lead to the development of crops capable of withstanding the escalating climate crisis.
Space Seeds: The Journey of Resilience
The selected seeds included sorghum, a cereal grain, and Arabidopsis, a type of cress. After spending several months in the unique environment of the ISS, floating weightlessly amidst cosmic radiation, the seeds returned to Earth in April for comprehensive analysis. Now, scientists are meticulously screening the seeds to identify favorable traits resulting from the induced mutations.
Harnessing the Unique Powers of Space
On Earth, scientists can artificially induce plant mutations using gamma rays and X-rays. However, the space environment provides a wider spectrum of radiation and introduces additional factors like microgravity and temperature fluctuations. These extreme conditions have the potential to induce genetic alterations different from those typically observed using terrestrial radiation sources, and they may occur at an accelerated rate.
Shoba Sivasankar, the head of Plant Breeding and Genetics at the joint FAO and IAEA Center of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, explains that the stress encountered by organisms in space surpasses anything that can be simulated on Earth. The radiation outside the ISS is estimated to be “more than a hundredfold higher” than the natural radiation levels on Earth.
Breeding a New Generation of Resilient Crops
The seeds that journeyed to space hold the promise of transforming agriculture. By selectively breeding plants grown from the mutated seeds, Sivasankar and her team aim to create new crop strains. Their primary focus is on enhancing crop yields and productivity for essential staples like grains, legumes, roots, and tubers. Examples include cassava and sweet potato. Moreover, they strive to develop crops resilient to the increasing incidence of diseases, capable of withstanding droughts, high heat, and soil salinity caused by saltwater intrusion, irrigation, and evaporation.
Pioneering Efforts and Global Collaboration
The exploration of space for agricultural innovation is not a recent endeavor. Scientists have been sending seeds to space for experimentation for several decades. China, for instance, has been using space radiation since the 1980s to induce genetic mutations in crops. This method, which exposes seeds to cosmic radiation via satellites and high-altitude balloons, reportedly led to the production of giant sweet peppers and improvements in wheat and rice.
Moreover, researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) are currently investigating the effects of extraterrestrial conditions on plant amino acids. By studying the impact of these conditions on plant growth and development, they aim to gain insights into the adaptive capabilities of plants in extreme environments. Such knowledge could prove invaluable for cultivating crops during long-duration space missions.
Bridging the Gap between Space and Earth
The private sector has also taken a keen interest in the relationship between spaceflight and plant seeds. StarLab Oasis, a startup based in Abu Dhabi, plans to send quinoa seeds into space to enhance the crop’s genetic potential. Quinoa is known for its nutritional value and adaptability in arid regions. StarLab Oasis envisions growing these seeds on external docking platforms at space stations, with the aim of revolutionizing sustainability, climate change mitigation, and food security on Earth. The knowledge gained from space research can be directly applied to terrestrial agriculture.
Hope for the Future of Food Security Of Revolutionizing Agriculture
The pursuit of solutions for Earth’s agricultural challenges is driven by a common goal: securing our future food supply. The IAEA anticipates that initial results from this research will be available later this year.
“I am optimistic about the future of food security because technology is advancing rapidly,” states Sivasankar. “However, food security relies on a comprehensive approach that leverages all available technologies. Collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders are crucial for success.”
As scientists explore the infinite possibilities of space, the integration of cutting-edge technology with traditional agricultural practices may hold the key to ensuring a resilient and sustainable food supply for generations to come