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China Hopes Space Travel Creates Better Seeds


China is planning to launch its first satellite specifically designed to develop space-enhanced fruits, vegetables and other crops. Beijing is trying to find new ways to boost the country's food production.

The seed satellite is to be launched later this month. It will carry at least 2,000 varieties of seeds, including grains, fruits and forage plants.

The satellite will stay in space for two weeks, where the seeds will be exposed to cosmic radiation and weightlessness.

Liu Luxiang is director of the Space Breeding Center at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.

Liu says that conditions in outer space such as radiation and weightlessness lead to a mutation of the seeds.

He says outer space simply speeds up the genetic mutation that also takes place in nature, rather than artificially modifying the genes of plants. Liu says that unlike genetically manipulated food there is no risk for food safety.

Chinese scientists believe the mutated seeds can help produce high-yield and high-quality plants after their return to Earth.

Liu says that the space-breeding technology was mainly developed by Chinese scientists to increase agricultural production.

The world's most populous country is seeking ways to feed its growing population. China's farmland is shrinking rapidly, due to industrialization and desertification.

Since 1987, China has carried out at least nine experiments with seeds sent to outer space. But the Shijian 8 satellite being launched this month will be the country's first designed specifically for mutating seeds.

Chinese scientists say earlier space-based experiments had remarkable results. They say, for example, that a strain of rice developed from space-mutated seeds produced up to 15 percent larger yields than ordinary rice. They also report having grown "super-vegetables" from space seeds, such as green peppers weighing 750 grams and tomatoes of 250 grams.