DuPont research unveils future benefit in crop production, space exploration
In unprecedented space research, DuPont scientists have discovered that soybeans grown in space are similar to earth-grown crops - unleashing the ability to sustainably grow vegetation to support long-term human presence in space. Soybeans are one of the most consumed crops in the world today.
During a DuPont research mission that concluded with the return of Space Shuttle Atlantis in October, soybean seeds planted and nurtured by DuPont scientists germinated, developed into plants, flowered, and produced new seedpods in space aboard the International Space Station. The 97-day growth research initiative was the first ever to complete a major crop growth cycle in space - from planting seeds to growing new seeds.
With 83 space-grown soybean seeds on earth since October, DuPont conducted several analytical studies on the harvested seeds. The space-grown seeds were manually split - with one part of the seed sowed to grow and the other half grounded to examine its biological characteristics. The space-grown seeds and their subsequent plants were compared to a variety of independent earth-grown soybean seeds and plants. After several months of analysis, DuPont researchers discovered that the space-grown soybeans - when compared to earth-grown soybeans - were similar in physical and biological characteristics, developmental rate, morphology, and seed yields. Scientists, who will continue to monitor the initiative, noted the space-grown seeds were higher in sugar content, but lower in oil and amino acid content, presumably due to the higher carbon dioxide levels on the International Space Station.
"This clearly demonstrates soybeans can be grown as a crop in space to provide both food and serve as an atmospheric scrubber for long-term space travel," said Dr. Tom Corbin, DuPont lead researcher on the initiative. "This project was a great success. When we started, we were unsure if the seeds would even remain planted in space without any gravity, let alone grow. As it turned out, the project was the first-ever to complete a major crop growth cycle in space - from planting seeds to growing new seeds. It was also the first major crop grown on the International Space Station. Studying the effects of soybean plants grown in space has expanded our knowledge of soybeans and facilitated continued improvement of soybean seeds for farmers."
The soybeans returned to earth in October aboard the Atlantis. The prior June, DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) -- a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison - launched the soybean seed experiment on Space Shuttle Endeavour. As part of the research mission, PioneerĘ brand soybean seeds grew in a specialized enclosed and environmentally controlled growth chamber developed by WCSAR. Pioneer and WCSAR scientists monitored the soybeans' growth daily and provided adjustments to facilitate growth. Through video monitoring and data telemetry sent from the International Space Station, scientists also examined the effects of zero-gravity and other elements in space regarding plant growth.
According to the United Soybean Board, soybeans are the largest single source of protein meal and vegetable oil in the human diet. Domestically, soybeans provide 80 percent of the edible consumption of fats and oils in the United States. In 2000, 54 percent of the world's soybean trade originated from the United States with soybean and product exports totaling more than $6.6 billion. The world's largest seed company, Pioneer is also the brand leader in soybeans with more than 100 product varieties on the market.
"This was an incredible scientific opportunity for us and our partners," Corbin said. "As a science company, we know that future research opportunities may come from totally different venues and needs as we look ahead. The discovery process often requires exploring unprecedented avenues to unleash the next wave of innovation, discovering new and meaningful innovation wherever it is."
DuPont has a rich tradition of space exploration initiatives, dating to NASA's origination 33 years ago. For example, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, his spacesuit included 25 separate layers - 23 of those layers were DuPont materials. In 1984, Pioneer corn seeds were on board a Challenger shuttle launch. The seeds, which were not planted while in space, were used in science-based initiatives after returning to Earth.
WCSAR makes space available to industry in the interest of development and commercialization of new products and processes. It provides controlled environment technologies and facilities, plant genetic transformation technologies, enhanced biosynthesis technologies, as well as robotic and automated technologies.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a subsidiary of DuPont, is the world's leading source of customized solutions for farmers, livestock producers and grain and oilseed processors. With headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Pioneer provides access to advanced plant genetics, crop protection solutions and quality crop systems to customers in nearly 70 countries.
DuPont is a science company. Founded in 1802, DuPont puts science to work by solving problems and creating solutions that make people's lives better, safer and easier. Operating in more than 70 countries, the company offers a wide range of products and services to markets including agriculture, nutrition, electronics, communications, safety and protection, home and construction, transportation and apparel.