Seeds from the joint laboratories of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are onboard a Cygnus spacecraft launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia early on November 7. Now orbiting the Earth en route to the International Space Station, the seeds are part of a commercial resupply mission with a payload that includes resources to support more than 250 scientific investigations.
While it’s not the first time seeds have been sent into space to catch cosmic rays, it is the first time that the IAEA and FAO, which regularly carry out irradiation experiments at their agriculture and biotechnology laboratories based in Vienna, have gone to such heights. One goal of the experiment is to compare the seeds with the others exposed to radiation under earthbound laboratory conditions to study DNA and growth effects.
This is different: While many space-based seed and plant irradiation experiments—such as NASA’s RAD-SEED experiments, launched into orbit in May 2020—are intended to support fresh food production during crewed near-Earth or deep space missions, the IAEA/FAO will study its irradiated seeds in hopes of cosmic radiation–induced mutagenesis that could improve food production in drought-afflicted regions on earth by introducing crop varieties with traits that suit changing climate conditions.
Seeds of Arabidopsis, a plant commonly used in genetic experiments, and sorghum, a food crop also used for animal feed and ethanol, will be exposed both inside and outside the International Space Station for about three months to microgravity, a complex mixture of cosmic radiation, and extreme low temperatures. After their return to Earth, scientists at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture will grow and screen them for useful traits.
“Nuclear science once again is showing us its extraordinary capability to tackle climate change,” IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said. “I am hopeful this experiment will bring about breakthroughs: results that we share freely with scientists and new crops that help farmers adapt to climate change and boost food supplies.”
Ongoing collaboration: The experiment is part of an IAEA/FAO portfolio of climate change projects aimed at helping countries adapt to new climate realities, including food and water shortages and biodiversity losses, through nuclear science and technology. It expands on nearly 60 years of experimentation with radiation-induced mutations. So far, more than 3,400 varieties of more than 210 plant species that were developed using induced genetic variation and mutation breeding have been released for commercial use in 70 countries, according to the IAEA.
“Millions of vulnerable smallholder food producers across the planet urgently require resilient, high-quality seeds adapted to increasingly challenging growing conditions,” said FAO director general Dongyu Qu . “Innovative science like space breeding of improved crop varieties can help pave the road to a brighter future of better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life.”
On October 31, the two organizations agreed to intensify their collaboration with a memorandum of understanding signed by Grossi and Qu to increase innovative research and development to help countries achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals with new work in key research areas including the ocean, the environment, water resources, and nutrition.