These photos show the often enormous results of growing vegetables by sending the seeds into space. And while “seed pods from space” may sound a bit eerie in our scifi-saturated society of body-snatcher movies and whatnot, Chinese scientists have observed marked success using this method. China Daily reports:
Chinese scientists have created more than 120 varieties of plants by sending seeds into space over the past 25 years.
The varieties are making their way to dining tables and even grabbing a market share in some areas, industry insiders said.
In Northwest China’s Gansu province, “space peppers” account for more than half of the local capsicum market, said Li Qingsheng, director of the Lanzhou office of the Tianshui Shenzhou Lushui Agricultural Science and Technology Co, a seed firm in western China.
“These ‘space peppers’ are not sold with a label indicating their uniqueness, but they still sell well at a slightly higher price than conventional ones,” Li said. Farmers like to grow them because the particular type of pepper, the Hangjiao-5, grows faster, has a higher yield, and sells well, he said. Consumers like its thicker flesh and it has fewer seeds, he said.
The planting area of the pepper, which used seeds developed from seeds taken into space during the 2002 Shenzhou III mission, has spread to five other provinces and regions, including the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and Yunnan and Qinghai provinces.
Despite it’s miraculous success, the process of growing space produce is a little more complicated than simply taking seeds into space and watching them instantly balloon out into mondo vegetables like in a claymation short:
Breeders spend years working in the farmland, nurturing and selecting the prime seeds and just being in space is no guarantee of success.
Liu’s team sowed tomato seeds in 2005 presented by Russia as a gift. The results were mixed. They had been on the Mir space station for six years (1992-98). But the first seedlings produced both big and small tomatoes. Some did not even sprout.
They selected the good but unwanted traits continued to emerge in the second and third generations. It was not until the fourth generation that the researchers were pretty sure that the traits were in the genes.
A new variety usually takes at least four years to create but it is still a “much faster” process than traditional breeding which can take a lifetime to make just a few new varieties, she said.
That is not fast enough as agriculture undergoes further modernization to feed a population of 1.3 billion, she said.
“More than half of all vegetable seeds bought by farmers in China are imported. The situation is pressing,” she said.
Chinese scientists first sent crop seeds into space in a recoverable satellite in 1987.
Jiang Xingcun, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences who was in charge of the early experiments, found that the space environment — which apart from the lack of gravity also has a magnetic field and high energy cosmic radiation — can induce mutations in up to 12 percent of the seeds, hundreds of times the rate on Earth.
Scientists say the radiation and micro-gravity can cause natural changes to the seed. It does not involve any artificial genetic modification.
Radiation-induced mutation is an agreed safe way to breed new crop varieties, given the fact that it does not splice any foreign genes into the plants, Liu said. A bigger percentage of mutations means breeders have a wider choice to find their desired traits.
So yes, “mutant vegetables from outer-space.”
Naturally, with any technology this “far out” there are many caveats to be had. Some agronomists ask why China should conduct space-induced mutation when the US and Russia have cut their programs.
However, as Liu points out, the US and Russia have actually been using space-fostered mutation to enhance crops with Russia using it on cotton, wheat, and even Christmas trees while the US has utilized the technology to speed up the rate at which roses produce oil for perfume.
All caveats and cons aside, space-mutated produce may be increasingly necessary as the population booms while arable land shrinks and the environment sees more and more devastation. Especially since space cucumbers are probably now safer than ones grown in Chinese soil.
Maybe, if one of the shuttles ever spilled some of the seeds, that darting light we see out the window at night won’t be a shooting star but a UFO (unidentified flying onion).