IAEA sends seeds to the ISS to induce mutations with cosmic radiation

The experiment is designed to develop plant varieties that can tackle climate change.
Ameya Paleja
The IAEA has sent seed samples to the ISS
The IAEA has sent seed samples to the ISS


In November last year, as a cargo load was blasted off to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, onboard were seeds dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) so that they could be exposed to cosmic radiation.

That an international agency tasked with inhibiting the use of nuclear energy for military purposes is also working on food grains might sound a bit outlandish. However, the IAEA has been working in this area for six decades and even has a dedicated laboratory for this purpose near its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

Radiation to improve yields

Plant breeding is a science that has been used for thousands of years to improve traits such as yields and resistance in plants. The slow technique that took years to yield results was replaced with nuclear radiation in the last century. Institutions like the IAEA irradiated seeds using Cobalt-60 in the hope that changes in the seed's genetic material give rise to beneficial mutations in plants.

In the last decade, more direct means of genetic manipulation have evolved, such as gene editing using CRISPR. However, these are classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and attract a stringent regulatory overview. In contrast, using irradiation to induce mutations is considered a natural process.

As per IAEA's own records, more than 3,400 varieties of 210 plant species have been developed using these methods and are in use in over 70 countries. The IAEA wants to take it a step further and use cosmic radiation instead.

The concept is not wholly original since China has been using this method for decades and deployed rockets and high-altitude balloons for this purpose, Bloomberg said in its report. The country has already registered more than 800 mutant crop varieties with the IAEA.

The IAEA samples sent to ISS have been split into two groups. One was moved to an external platform where one would be exposed to the full extent of cosmic radiation. This is expected to make them more resilient to a climate change-induced warming world with higher temperatures and drier soils. The other group of seeds will remain inside the ISS and serve as a control, exposed only to microgravity.

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Both sets consist of arabidopsis and sorghum seeds. While arabidopsis is a type of cress, it has been widely studied at a genetic level and can be used to identify the changes the seeds undergo during their stay. On the other hand, Sorghum is a grain grown in semi-arid tropical regions and a food source in many developing countries.

The seeds are expected to return to Earth in April, after which they will be germinated and grown in IAEA's greenhouses outside Vienna. Studies about the changes the DNA has undergone and its biological effects will continue for many years before they are used in the fields.

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