Chinese researchers hunt for crop mutations with upcoming satellite launch

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Chinese government researchers plan to launch a recoverable satellite carrying half a ton of seeds and other organisms into space in a bid to accelerate mutations which may result in better crops, the South China Morning Post reported

Why it matters: The launch is part of the world’s largest experiment on cosmic radiation-induced mutations. 

  • A successfully mutated crop variety could mean increasing China’s food security.
  • At the end of 2018, crops derived from China’s space program were being commercially planted on 2.4 billion hectares of land, according to a government agency.  
  • Additionally, insights from the country’s space program have led to a 1.3 million ton increase in annual grain production, which amounts to approximately one kilogram for every Chinese citizen, according to the report.

Details: The trip to space could last as long as two weeks, with the payload enduring low-oxygen conditions, extreme cold, and exposure to high levels of radiation.   

  • Scientists hope to induce mutations in the organisms that would have otherwise been impossible or taken longer on earth. 
  • Upon return, the seeds will be planted and monitored for traits that could be leveraged commercially. 
  • The upcoming launch will attempt to lower costs, including use of a reusable capsule that is designed to last for up to 15 missions. 

Context: The government’s space-based crop mutation program began in in 2006 with Shijian 8⁠—the world’s first satellite designed primarily for mutation breeding. It carried around 200 kilograms of vegetable, fruit, and cotton seeds. 

  • Despite initial doubts from the international community, China’s second most-used mutant wheat variety was developed using space-based mutation breeding. Its yield is 11% higher than the traditional variety. 
  • The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations are working with China to promote its technology abroad so other countries can work on creating new crop varieties, the report said.
  • China’s contributions to the IAEA/FAO Mutant Varieties Database account for 15% of the total collection, which is more than any country. 
  • With 20% of the world’s population but just 9% of its arable land, China has a good reason to focus on innovating in the name of food security. 
  • In the face of the trade war with the US and a devastating outbreak of African swine fever, the country must rely on its own resources to ensure its food supplies, researchers said in a recent white paper released by the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration.