Sunday, 28 June 2009

Them seeds is back


Don't tell anyone, at least until after 10.00 am today (Monday 29 June), but we've tested our space seeds. And the results are...contained in the following Media Release...with a few additional comments from me at the end...
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NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff today announced that the first Australian seeds to go into space have survived more than 2800 orbits of the Earth with no signs of space fatigue or damage.

At the request of the Botanic Gardens Trust Sydney, Dr Chamitoff took the seeds of Golden Wattle, Flannel Flowers, Waratah and Wollemi Pine with him on the Discovery Mission STS-124 that launched last May.

The Canadian-born astronaut and the seeds spent six months at the International Space Station (ISS) 400km above the Earth before returning in late November. An identical control package of seeds was stored back on earth.

Dr Chamitoff said “Germination tests at the NSW Seedbank at Mount Annan Botanic Garden have confirmed that space travel did not adversely affect the viability of the Golden Wattle, Flannel Flower or Waratah seeds. Germination tests are still underway on the seeds from Wollemi Pine.

“Both the seeds and I were subject to microgravity and low-level ionising radiation. NASA keeps a regular check on how I am affected, and the Botanic Gardens Trust are testing the seeds and will continue to monitor the seedlings,” said Dr Chamitoff.

The ISS, circling the Earth once every 90 minutes at 28,000 km per hour is, in effect, in free fall. Gravity is close to zero and is called microgravity. Ionising radiation is from high-energy waves at the short-end of the electromagetic spectrum which, while useful in many areas of medicine and research, can cause burns, cancer and damage to living tissue and genes.

Dr Chamitoff said, “From NASA’s perspective, we are interested in seeds that might be hardy enough to survive long duration exposure to the space environment and then germinate in greenhouses in Space or on other planets. Ultimately, this will be essential to support self-sustaining outposts or colonies in Space with food and oxygen.”

Botanic Gardens Trust Executive Director Dr Tim Entwisle said, “With habitats under increasing threat, seedbanking on earth, and perhaps in space one day, will be part of an integrated conservation program for species threatened by extinction due to global warming or other sudden changes to their habitat.

“The more we learn about how seeds react in different environments, the more we learn about how to conserve our irreplacable plant species,” he said.

Dr Tim Entwisle said that testing and observation of all four species that have endured six months in space will continue at the NSW Seedbank to see if the space seedlings match or surpass the vigour and longevity of their control counterparts further down the track. The seeds that they produce will also be compared.

“Microgravity alone has the capacity to discombobulate a seed so it doesn’t know which way to grow. Certainly this would be an issue for the seeds if they had been germinated up in Space but it seems, at this stage, that our seeds still know which way is up!” he said.

Differences in the lifespan between the space and control seeds are currently being tested using “fast track aging”. Seeds are put under tough conditions with high humidity and heat of 45 degrees, to then judge whether their natural lifespan has been shortened by their space experiences.

Dr Entwisle said, “The four species of seeds that we selected to send into space are very different from each other. The tough guys are the Golden Wattle, from the acacia family, which rely on fire to germinate and are thought to be the longest lived seeds on earth – some acacia seeds will last hundreds of years in storage. Waratahs and flannel flowers will last for decades. Wollemi pines are still a relatively unknown quantity, but this space experiment will increase our knowledge about this rock star of the plant world.”

It is hoped the Wollemi space seeds will germinate within a few weeks. Because the ancient species appears to have evolved in cooler climate conditions millions of years ago, the seeds needed to be chilled before germination.

Horticultural students from the University of Sydney assisted staff with the tests.

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This is a case in science where 'no result' is a good result. We expected and hoped space travel would not change our seeds and so far that seems to be the case.

It's good news for a seedbank in space (unlikely in the short-term), carrying seed into space for vegetating new worlds or space stations (possibly sooner) and for the environment and seedbanking back on earth (where we need seeds to be as resilient to change as possible!).

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