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space race seeds

Space rice feeds new space race: China is getting serious

With two swift strokes, China showed it’s taking its space agriculture projects very seriously. After harvesting its first batch of “space rice” that went to the moon, China is also distributing lunar soil samples to research institutes to assess lunar habitability.

The return capsule of China’s Chang’e-5 probe lands in Siziwang Banner, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on Dec. 17, 2020. Photo: Xinhua.

Rice from the heavens

China is doing much more than dipping its toes into space exploration. After setting up its own space station, sending a rover on Mars, and reporting breakthroughs in quantum space communication, China now has its eyes on a different prize: space agriculture.

Food security has long been a concern for China, and as the country strives to feed its 1.4 billion inhabitants while also raising the standard of life, the challenge won’t be easy. Apparently, in the long run, China also sees space exploration as an avenue worth exploring. Recently, the country harvested the first “moon rice” from seeds that returned from the moon last year. Researchers hope that the experience can help them create new, more resilient plant varieties.

China’s fascination with space breeding crops has been a surprisingly prolific endeavor. Since 1987, the country has been carrying seeds of rice, cotton, and other crops into outer space. The reasoning is that after being exposed to cosmic radiation, seeds can undergo useful mutations that make them produce higher yields and make them more resistant to pests.

“It was a breakthrough of mutation rice breeding experiments in deep space,” said Chen Zhiqiang, director of the lab center in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

“The seeds have experienced special environments including microgravity and sunspot eruption in the process of space travel, which affects the genetic variation of rice seeds.”

Overall, 1,500 rice seeds weighing 40 grams traveled with the spacecraft. They were then grown in a greenhouse and planted in the field in the South China Agricultural University campus.

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Of course, it takes a lot of research to ensure that this is indeed the case, but over 200 of these space crops have been approved for planting in China. It normally takes a few years before these varieties enter the market.

With the Chang’e-5 lunar probe, rice seeds have traveled deeper into space than ever before, and the impact of cosmic rays and microgravity is stronger. As a result, Chinese researchers expect to see more genetic effects on the seeds — though whether or not these effects are actually useful remains to be seen.

Moon crops

China also wants to establish a research station and base on the moon, and may even look at using a lunar greenhouse for growing crops. Having access to non-terrestrial crops will also be helpful for future manned spaceflights (especially longer missions).

To this end, China distributed batches of 17 grams of lunar soils to 13 research institutes, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China University of Geosciences, and Sun Yat-Sen University. The goal is to use the samples to understand more about the moon’s geology and evolution, but also to peer into its potential habitability. In its lunar mission, China was already able to grow crops on the lunar surface, after cotton seeds successfully sprouted inside a special mini-biosphere container.

For China, this is also an opportunity to boost its standing as a space power — not just among other countries, but among its inhabitants as well. Lunar soil was also exhibited in Hong Kong, which the state-owned Global Times noted as a boost to “patriotic sentiment.” Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, reportedly told the Global Times that it would be beneficial for people in Hong Kong to “arouse their patriotic sentiment through China’s achievements in aerospace”.

Space race seeds

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With Space Rice, Space Race Comes Back to Earth

In years past, China has allocated millions of hectares of farmland to the offspring of plants returned from space, hoping to find and cultivate desirable traits.

After returning to Earth from a three-week lunar voyage with the Chang’e 5 spacecraft last December, some 1,600 rice seeds sprouted in a greenhouse in southern China’s Guangdong province, with scientists hoping the extraterrestrial exposure could help create new plant varieties.

On Monday, scientists at South China Agricultural University’s National Engineering Research Center of Plant Space Breeding transplanted the seedlings to an open field. According to domestic media, these plants, which traveled farther than any others in the history of China’s space program, would be ready for harvest in June.

Researchers hope the experiment in “space-induced mutation breeding” will create new types of rice. Guo Tao, deputy director of the plant space breeding lab, told state-backed newspaper Science and Technology Daily that the extreme environment of deep space “plays a key role in creating and breeding new varieties.”

A young scientist attempts to mark a field containing seeds from the Chang’e 5 spacecraft in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 29, 2021. Liu Dawei/Xinhua

Scientists commonly use radiation — including types found in outer space — to generate mutations in plants. Lu Baorong, director of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Fudan University, told Sixth Tone that the complex extraterrestrial environment can induce unique changes in a plant’s genes that might not otherwise appear on Earth.

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Some mutations could lead to traits that are beneficial to humans, such as bigger fruits or higher tolerance for drought, said Lu, who was not involved in the space rice project.

China began space-induced mutation breeding experiments in the 1980s. Using satellites and spacecraft, the country has sent a variety of plants into space, including rice, tomatoes, and peppers. Dozens of types of plants later entered the market. In 2018, more than 2.4 million hectares of land in China was used to grow space crops, according to state media.

In 2019, China’s Chang’e 4 mission brought cotton seeds to the far side of the moon. Pictures sent back from the lunar probe showed that these seeds sprouted in a sealed chamber on the Chang’e 4 lander but died after nightfall, when the temperature plummeted.

In the 1970s, the U.S. space agency NASA loaded its Apollo 14 lunar probe with tree seeds and planted them across the country after the spacecraft returned. Three decades later, the agency said these “moon trees” showed “no discernable differences” from regular, earthbound trees.

While the space environment could cause genetic changes in plants, Lu cautioned that uncertainties remain, such as their effects on the environment and food safety. As for what you might get each time, that “depends purely on luck.” So far, he said, China has not set safety regulations for products subject to space-induced mutation experiments.

“This is more of a gimmick to me. They make it sound like everything from space is better,” Lu said. “But humans know so little about mutations from outer space.”

The scientist added that whether space-induced mutations might be problematic requires further research. “I don’t think this approach will become mainstream in crop breeding because there are just so many variables that we can’t control,” he said. “Why don’t we trust the biotechnologies we already have on Earth?”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Scientists manually transplant rice seedlings from a nursery to an experimental field in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 29, 2021. Liu Dawei/Xinhua)