US company DuPont is to begin research in space in order to increase scientific knowledge about soybeans, one of the world's most popular crops.
DuPont is a provider of science-based solutions to different industries. It has partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) to conduct what it claims is an unprecedented exploration of soybean development. The soybean plants are to go into space during NASA's space shuttle flight scheduled for takeoff today.
The research will determine whether plants grow differently in space and examine the effects of zero-gravity on plant growth and development. The team will study the harvested seed from the soybean plants to find out if they have improved oil, protein, carbohydrates or secondary metabolites that could benefit farmers and consumers.
According to the United Soybean Board, soybeans are the largest single source of protein meal and vegetable oil in the human diet. In the US, soybeans provide 80 per cent of the edible consumption of fats and oils, and in 2000, 54 per cent of the world's soybean trade originated from the United States with soybean and product exports totalling more than $6.6 billion.
As part of the initiative, scientists will plant DuPont's Pioneer-brand soybean seeds in a specialised tray within a growth chamber developed by WCSAR. The chamber will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) from the space shuttle flight. During the 70-day experiment, the soybean plants will germinate, grow and produce seeds. Scientists will monitor the process via video and data sent from the space station.
The plants and harvested grain will be returned to Earth this summer by the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Pioneer researchers will identify any unique and desirable qualities in the seeds, and use the genetic information to improve the soybeans' efficiency and profitability for farmers.
Pioneer previously carried out space research in 1984 when corn seeds were sent with a Challenger shuttle launch. The seeds, which were not planted while in space, were used in science-based initiatives after returning to Earth.
Among DuPont's other space initiatives, it provided the materials for Neil Armstrong's clothing in 1969. Dr Thomas M. Connelly, chief science and technology officer for DuPont, said: "As a science company, we realise that future opportunities don't always come where you found your last opportunities. The discovery process often requires exploring in new areas - like soybeans growing in space - to unleash the next wave of innovation."
"This is an incredible scientific opportunity for us and our partners," said Dr Tom Corbin, DuPont researcher on the project. "Studying the effects of soybean plants grown in space will help us expand our knowledge of soybeans and facilitate continued improvement of soybean germplasm for farmers."
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont, provides customised solutions for farmers, livestock producers and grain and oilseed processors.