The Birds and The Bees Meets the Mile High Club

Biology and space flight have been closely intertwined ever since the Soviets first launched Laika into orbit in November of 1957. The unique environment of space presents an incredible laboratory environment for biologists to study biological processes, and literally thousands of experiments have been undertaken in the last 50 years.

Now the Chinese government, following in Mendel’s footsteps, is taking genetic and biological research in space one step further — launching the country’s first seed satellite — specifically designed for seed breeding– this coming September:

Shijian-8 is expected to carry at least 2,000 varieties of plant seeds in nine categories, including grains, cash crops and forage plants, as well as seeds of fungi and molecular biomaterials that have been sequenced.

Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, said the "seed satellite" will enable scientists to try and cultivate high-yield and high-quality plant varieties.

Exposed to special environment such as cosmic radiation and micro-gravity, some seeds will mutate to such an extent that they may produce much higher yield and improved quality, said Sun.

Space experts said 40 per cent of mutated space seeds can be used in space breeding experiments.

Since 1987, nine Chinese satellites and several of China’s six Shenzhou spacecraft have carried seeds for experiments and a number of new species of plant seeds have been bred in space, but never before has the country launched a satellite exclusively for seed breeding.

Space-bred seeds are big business:

Liu Luxiang, director of the Centre for Space Breeding under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said that between 2001 and 2004, space-bred rice and wheat varieties developed by his centre had been planted in about 566,600 hectares, producing an additional 340,000 tons of grain.

Experiments have shown that the vitamin content of vegetables grown from space seeds is 281.5 per cent of that of ordinary vegetables; and microelements of ferrum, zinc and carotene are also higher than normal.

The planting of space tomatoes and green peppers in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, which started in 1999, has raised average yield by 10 to 20 per cent, with the fruits bigger and of better quality, according to earlier newspaper reports.

Space tomatoes! But are they organic?