Monday, 1 December 2008

Seeds back from space

A flurry of interest today from New Zealand to Melbourne as our seeds return from space. Astronaut Dr Greg Chamitoff is reported as OK, and our seeds of Golden Wattle, Waratah, Flannel Flower and Wollemi Pine look as they did when they left earth (clinging together in a flat vacuum pack).

The space shuttle Endeavour landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 8.30 am this morning (Sydney time), making a particularly abrupt landing on a particularly short runway. But crew and seeds are all fine.

Once the seeds have cleared quarantine, which I assume will take a little longer than at Sydney airport, they will wing their way back to our Mount Annan Botanic Garden. There we have an almost identical shrink-pack to compare with these well travelled seeds. Both lots will be germinated and grown on to see what effect six months in a space station has on their genes and final form.

Will microgravity and low-level ionising radiation alter their genetic make-up? We expect not. Australian seeds are pretty tough, especially the wattle which is adapted to drought and fire. But it's often the unexpected results that lead to new discoveries in science, so we'll see.

And why do it? Well, we may one need want or need to grow plants on a space station or a planet or moon - for food, oxygen or shelter, as we do on earth. We need to know that seed can be transported safely across space and not come out the other end of the shuttle in some mutated form.

Or we may wish or need to set up a seedbank in space (or on another planet or moon). We already have a network of seedbanks around Australia, and throughout the world, to hold and secure 'germplasm' of our native species. This is an insurance policy to protect each species and to also use for restoration of habitats altered by anything from fire to climate change. As part of this network we distribute duplicates to other seedbanks, including particularly the Millenium Seedbank at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK, which has been a driving force and funder for much of our recent work on seedbanking in Australia. The ultimate security backup might be in space...

Perhaps more importantly, we want to highlight the benefits of seedbanking - for more on this see the Climate Change Strategy link in a previous post.

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