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Crop Seeds Return from Space in IAEA/FAO Project: A Promising Solution to Feed a Warming World

Seeds launched into orbit last year have returned to Earth, marking a major milestone in the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' (FAO) collaborative efforts to produce robust crops that can help provide adequate food as the world warms.

Shivam Dwivedi
Crop Seeds Return from Space in IAEA/FAO Project: A Promising Solution to Feed a Warming World
Crop Seeds Return from Space in IAEA/FAO Project: A Promising Solution to Feed a Warming World

Plants evolve to thrive in their environments, but crops have struggled to keep up with the present rate of climate change. As the world warms and the global population grows, farmers around the world are struggling to satisfy food demand.

To assist these farmers and increase global food security, the IAEA and FAO launched seeds into space through their Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture to investigate the impact of cosmic radiation on the natural, genetic adaptability of critical crops. Their return to Earth allows scientists to begin examining the results.

Arabidopsis and Sorghum seeds, launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA on 7th November 2022 and having spent approximately 5 months at the International Space Station (ISS), were released from the ISS in the SpaceX CRS-27 cargo craft at 17:05 CEST on 15 April and made a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of Florida, USA at 22:58 CEST. They will now return to the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture facilities in Seibersdorf, Austria, where they will be screened and evaluated for desired features.

"The cosmic crops initiative is one of a kind. This is a science that, in the not-too-distant future, might have a meaningful influence on people's lives by allowing us to grow better crops and feed more people," stated IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. "Although IAEA and FAO scientists have been mutating seeds for 60 years and developing thousands of stronger crops for the world's use, this is the first time we have experimented with such an exciting field as astrobiology."

"Now that the seeds have returned to Earth, we can compare the effects of cosmic radiation, microgravity, and extreme temperatures to those induced in our joint laboratories." This groundbreaking experiment will aid in the development of crops that can adapt to climate change and improve global food security, according to FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. Before arriving at the laboratories, the seeds will go through a phytosanitary import process, which is a normal requirement for transporting plant material across country borders to reduce the danger of introducing new pests.

Radiation in laboratories is often done in a machine that uses gamma rays and X-rays to speed up the process of spontaneous genetic variation. Scientists are working to uncover favourable features in irradiated seeds and pass them on to future generations. Plants evolve quicker with beneficial characteristics such as disease resistance and drought tolerance in this manner. The wide range and heavier radiation in space, along with additional extremes such as microgravity and temperature, may cause genetic alterations not generally seen with terrestrial radiation sources.

"This is the FAO and IAEA's first feasibility study to determine the effect of cosmic radiation, microgravity, and extreme temperatures on plant genome and biology, with the goal of generating enough genetic variation for enhanced adaptation to climate change," said Shoba Sivasankar, Section Head of Plant Breeding and Genetics at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre.

Arabidopsis, a form of cress that is easy to cultivate and generates a lot of seeds, will be evaluated for drought, salt, and heat tolerance. Sorghum, a nutrient-dense cereal grain that can grow in arid environments and is resistant to climate change, will be evaluated for desirable features for climate change resilience. Both seeds will be cultivated to the next generation before trait selection, and preliminary results from the faster-growing Arabidopsis could be available in October 2023, depending on when they arrive in the laboratories in Seibersdorf.

DNA will be extracted and sequenced from both crop species to compare the differences between seeds that were irradiated in a laboratory, seeds that were positioned inside the ISS, and seeds that were positioned outside the ISS and received full exposure to cosmic radiation, microgravity, and extreme temperatures. These studies, along with a comparative analysis of plant biology, will aid in determining whether severe space environments have a particular value for crop improvement and might potentially benefit people on Earth.

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