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China mutates plants ... IN SPAAAAAACE

Astro-capsicum on sale now

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Chinese botanical boffins have produced more than 120 new varieties of fruit and veg over the past quarter of a century by mutating regular plant seeds in space.

The seeds of nearly 400 plant varieties have been shot into the heavens over the period – 23 times in recoverable satellites and ten times on manned space missions, according to a China Daily report citing local media.

The goal is to discover exactly how space conditions mutate the seeds, with a view to breeding crop varieties in simulated conditions but in a much shorter period of time.

High energy cosmic radiation and the zero gravity environment of space are thought to trigger tiny changes to the genetic structure of the seeds.

They can induce mutations in 12 per cent of seeds, which is hundreds of times the rate that can be achieved back on terra firma, Jiang Xingcun, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the paper.

Once a new mutation has been discovered, it will often require a great deal of work and several more generations to be grown and selected back on earth before it is ready for commercial production – a process which usually takes around four years.

"It’s not like that after traveling in space for a few days, the seeds will turn out with all the desired traits we want," said Liu Min, a seed technology specialist.

"More than half of all vegetable seeds bought by farmers in China are imported. The situation is pressing.”

The cosmic fruit and veg is already having an impact on the domestic market.

Hangjiao-5 – a type of capsicum – was grown from seeds mutated during the 2002 Shenzhou III mission, and is apparently now on sale in five provinces and regions in the People's Republic.

The US and former Soviet Union have both experimented in the past with space-induced mutant seeds, but have largely put an end to their cosmic tinkering, leaving China alone in its quest for botanical perfection among the stars. ®

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