December 12, 2022
SINGAPORE – Singaporeans could one day enjoy crunchy salads made from vegetables that have been “supersized” in space.
In 2021, the island state sent coriander seeds to the International Space Station – a laboratory in orbit about 400 km from Earth – as part of an Asia-Pacific project. Eleven countries provided 22 types of herb seeds stored in a ziplock bag, to find out how space travel affects them.
While an astronaut’s health must be protected from the harsh space environment, coriander seeds have more than held their own, turning into “superseeds” during their month-long stay in space.
When replanted on Earth, the seeds displayed a lusher yield, weighing 41.4g compared to 33.1g for their terrestrial counterpart.
Space radiation and microgravity – the condition of weightlessness – have led to genetic mutations in seeds that could generate random but potentially useful traits, the Food Agency of Singapore said in a joint response with other institutions involved in the project.
The other institutions are Singapore Space and Technology, the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine (BD-MED).
GIS and BD-MED scientists who performed genetic analyzes on plant leaves, roots and stem found that hundreds of genes involved in biological processes associated with plant growth were activated in different ways compared to ordinary plants.
“This suggests that changes in gene expression due to space exposure could produce tangible differences in plant yield,” the organizations said in a joint response.
Further studies will be conducted to understand the effect of spaceflight on plant genes and DNA, they added.
They will also explore the potential of space-induced seed selection to create robust next-generation crops and new vegetable varieties.
These crops could enhance food security because they can resist disease and harsher climates.
China has been practicing space seed breeding since the 1980s. This process involves sending seeds into space and germinating them on earth. More promising crops are bred until researchers get their ideal plant, according to a BBC report on China’s space breeding efforts.
The BBC also reported that China has developed more than 200 varieties of space-mutated crops over three decades, including rice, corn, soybeans and watermelon.
The Asia-Pacific project in which Singapore has participated is called Asian Herb in Space (AHiS), initiated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Ms. Gillian Chin, Singapore point of contact for the project, said: “The goal of AHiS is to provide students and young researchers in the Asia-Pacific region with an opportunity to learn about space biology. Besides Singapore, the other countries that have provided seeds are Australia, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
But things aren’t all boring for earth seeds. Scientists have tried gene-editing technologies to boost the nutrients in lettuce or speed up the growth of bok choy, for example.
Commenting on the Singapore project, Dr Naweed Naqvi, principal investigator at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, said exposing seeds to space radiation to create mutations is not economically feasible and its impact may be wide, uncontrolled and uncontrolled. specific.
But he noted that some radiation, such as gamma rays, is commonly used in plant research to generate mutations and understand plant growth and reproduction.
Dr Naweed added: “Gene editing is much more precise and clean. It takes less time and relies on prior knowledge of the specific targets or genetic pathways to be manipulated. »
Professor Yu Hao, Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, said: “To develop sustainable means of producing supercultures, the application of space radiation could be tried, but its actual effects – compared to gene editing and other mutation approaches that could be easily done on Earth – need further study.