The International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization have sent sorghum and Arabidopsis seeds to the International Space Station for three months. The aim is to find out how they react when exposed to conditions like microgravity (a mix of cosmic radiation and extremely low temperatures).
It’s hoped that when they’re sown back on Earth, the seeds will exhibit useful mutations that will make them more resilient and adaptive to fluctuating climatic settings. And to better understand the effects of DNA alterations, scientists will also compare the ones sent to space to those exposed to radiation in a lab.
Outside of cosmic mutations, another recent crop-hardiness-related study by researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (UK) uncovered a height-reducing wheat gene called Rht13. It allows seeds to be planted deeper in the soil, where they can access more moisture and therefore grow into more drought-resistant crops. Previously discovered iterations – chosen by breeders because shorter-stemmed wheat puts less energy into growing stalks and hence produces more grain – can only be planted near the surface of the soil. The new variety also yields stiffer stems, meaning it may also be able to withstand stormy conditions.
Attitudes to gene-edited crops are in flux: while some still view them through a negative lens, a growing number of consumers are coming to understand their importance for future global food security. In October, the European Commission confirmed it would be issuing a proposal to ease regulation for some gene-edited technologies in 2023.