The return of America's Space Shuttle Atlantis last Friday also meant the return of soybeans grown and developed in space by scientists from chemical group DuPont. The researchers involved in the project said they saw a full major crop growth cycle in space - from planting seeds to growing new seeds. DuPont will use the project to investigate the possibility of developing new varieties of the popular crop.
The 97-day growth research initiative was the first to complete a major crop growth cycle in space - soybean seeds germinated, developed into plants, flowered, and produced new seedpods in space.
The soybean seed experiment was launched in June, by DuPont subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred International with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) - a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Pioneer and WCSAR will analyse the harvested seeds to determine if they have improved oil, protein, carbohydrates or secondary metabolites that could benefit farmers and consumers. Seeds exhibiting unique and desirable qualities will be planted by Pioneer scientists to determine if the traits can be inherited in future generations.
Pioneer will identify the genetics of those traits and use that information to further improve the soybeans' efficiency and profitability for farmers.
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 per cent of the edible consumption of fats and oils in the United States.
In 2000, 54 per cent of the world's soybean trade originated from the United States with soybean and product exports reaching more than $6.6 billion.
Dr Tom Corbin, DuPont researcher on the project, said: "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."
Chief science and technology officer Dr Thomas M. Connelly, added: "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 in unprecedented avenues to unleash the next wave of innovation and we are committed to discovering new and meaningful innovation wherever it is."