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China: Mangoes into orbit

To perfect the Hainan mango varieties and their cultivation structures, to break through the single variety breeding bottleneck and to develop a conventional seed selection: these are the reasons, the Hainan-based Haiken Fruit Industry Group and the South Asian Tropical Crop Research Center of the China Tropical Agriculture Research Institute, have cooperated in the 'Water Probing' spaceflight breeding program. This is the first attempt to create new breeds of mangoes in space.

At 07:30 on October 17, 4 test tubes of embryonic mangoes were launched into space by the Shenzhou 11 spaceship from the Jiuquan satellite launching centre. They remained in space for 33 days, together with the astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong. On the afternoon of November 23, the 4 test tubes were brought back by specialists to the South Asian Tropical Crop Research Centre's laboratory. 

On November 29, the deputy researcher of the South Asian Centre, and head of the mango task team, Wang Songbiao, found that the Hainan mangoes had started to germinate. At present, the 'extraterrestrial' mango tissue has been divided into 22 seperate breeding bottles for further growth diversification. 

The South Asian Centre is one of the oldest mango research and development institutions in China. For a long time now, the centre has collected, evaluated and innovated natural mango resources for research and development. It has already gathered and preserved the resources and breeds of 248 mango varieties, both Chinese and foreign. It has already brought 4 new varieties into existence, among which Red Mango N°6 and Renong N°1 are superior late-ripe mango varieties in China. They have an extensive cultivation surface of 6667 hectares with a yearly production of 200 million RMB. Moreover, with the application of conventional cultivation methods, such as crossbred pollination, a large number of hybrid varieties have also been created that have obtained an undeniable influence in the Chinese mango cultivation research field. 

'Creating new breeds in space'
'Creating new breeds in space' or 'space breeding', is a program to send organisms, plants agricultural product, seeds and other organic samples into space. The extreme environment of space, such as micro-gravity, strong radiation, high vacuum and sterility, form an environment that can provoke new genetic traits, to make new variations of hereditary organic products. Back on earth they can be used to create new breeds with modern biotechnology by selecting the bacteria or seeds with superior natural properties for production on a larger scale.

No matter if it's a conventional hybrid or a breed from cellular engineering, new materials received through genetic differentiation are limited to the breeding parents. Spaceflights create a high rate of genetical differentiation and the differences are often very significant. They allow for the production and selection of new species with the trademarks of conventional hybrids, or for novelties that rarely appear naturally in a short period of time. In the past few years, this has been an important procedure for achieving new materials for the selective breeding of agricultural products, such as vegetables and forest fruit trees.

The South Asian Centre plans to use the embryonic mango healing tissue as a new altered material. Through the radiation in outer space, genetic differentiation is achieved. On earth regenerative technology will be used to make sprouts from the new breed that will be further diversified to facilitate the selective breeding method. From all these breeds, a selection of mango varieties will be made with the best, most stable yield, a high resilience to diseases and an outer appearance that can be commercialised. This is how mango species are created and how the research field for mango breeding is expanding.

Mango seeds can't endure preservation for a long time because they are big. Fresh mango seeds start to turn brown and die after 5 days. Mangoes are incapable of sexual reproduction, they are duplicated through grafting and the fruits can't be preserved for a long time either. Because of these problems, mangoes themselves can't be taken on spaceflights for genetic alteration into new materials. But the tissue that remains after cultivation or cells from embryonic breeds can be preserved for a long time in a culture medium because they are very small. They also meet the requirements for the spaceflights. 

A new breed of space mangoes
According to researcher and deputy head of the South Asian Tropical Crop Research Center, Mr Zhan Rulin, during this trip, the peculiar environment of cosmic radiation, micro-gravity, a weak magnetic field and vacuum had a beneficial effect on the mutation process. With the spaceflights, it was possible to achieve the special differentiation of laboratory materials in a short time period that would have been very difficult with conventional techniques or chemical mutation. 

A new field of innovation with unprecedented results 
Successfully creating sprouts from regenerated mango tissue is a world first! But the embryonic tissue from the spaceflight material and the regenerated sprouts still have a lot of technical obstacles to overcome. It is still uncertain whether there is a large amount of good variation and whether the selection meets the requirements for a new variety. So the mangoes from the spaceflights are still far from being commercially viable at present. But this new field of innovation and the development of techniques for cultivation gives a usable amount of new materials that would be hard to obtain from the natural world.

30 years of Chinese space breeding
Documents show that China started its space breeding program in 1986 as 'the National 863 High-Tech Plan'. At that time, scholars weren't clear on the possibilities of using outer space to trigger hereditary differentiation in plants. On August 5, 1987, the launch of the 9th returning satellite for the first time took barley, peppers, carrots seeds and asexual garlic seeds into orbit. When the satellite returned, researches immediately performed cultivation experiments on the seeds. Not long after, a true miracle occurred. The carrot seeds that went to space became strong and healthy sprouts with leaves that weren't affected by insects. One researcher even put insects on the plant, but they just fell off and ran away. The corresponding test group of plants on the other hand were riddled with insect marks. It appeared that the space trip had given the carrot seeds a special resilience to insects. Even more remarkable, the garlic seeds that went on the spaceflight grew into large garlic that weighed 150 grams. 

In 1987, China started to use returning satellites as spaceflights for research on cultivation. Up to today, China has performed several experiments with bacteria, agricultural products and seeds on more than 10 spaceflights of satellites and spaceships and quite a few innovative research results have been achieved. Space breeding has already become an important and characteristic field in the life sciences. Not only has it opened a new route for Chinese space cultivation, but it has also drawn in cooperation from the US, Russia, Bulgaria, the Philippines and other countries.

Safe to eat?

When space-altered breeds are mentioned, some people think of products that are genetically modified. They worry that the food will have a negative effect on health. Experts point out that breeds altered in space are essentially different from products that are genetically modified. No external genes are introduced but instead the chromosomes are torn apart in a special environment. The genome is then reassembled to bring about differentiated natural properties. This process is similar to what happens on earth, so no new and possibly harmful material is produced.

The Guangxi Agricultural University once performed a large series of nutritional analyses on the descendants from rice crops that were given a space treatment. No harmful substances were found. Many agricultural products in China that are the result of space mutation are available on the market in large quantities. Until today, not one person has reacted to it in a bad way. A large amount of facts all conclude that space-altered breeds of agricultural products can be eaten freely, without worry. 

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