Crops bred in space produce heavenly results

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-11-13 09:05
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Beetroot cultivated in space [Photo provided to China Daily]

New traits

Chengcheng county in Shaanxi province is home to Piperis dahongpao, a variety of spice commonly known as big red robe peppercorn that is widely employed in Chinese cuisine.

The spice has been used since the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) for cooking, medicine, rituals and even for palace decorations, according to the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

However, it has a notoriously low yield and is difficult to harvest, as the plant stems are covered with sharp thorns. For centuries, it was considered a "tribute spice" enjoyed only by the privileged, the best-known being Empress Dou of the Han Dynasty, who decorated her chamber with the condiment to signify fertility and prestige.

It is still not cost-effective to produce this spice. Guo said, "A laborer can only pick about 7.5 kilograms of this peppercorn per day, and after it is dried in the sun, less than 2 kg is left."

In 2016, Guo and his team sent some of the spice seeds into orbit for 12 days aboard the Shijian-10 recoverable science satellite.

The team was aiming to create a new variety of peppercorn with stronger resistance to wind and disease, but it discovered something far more exciting-the thorns on the stems had disappeared.

"Generating unexpected new traits is one of the main features of space-induced mutation breeding," Guo said.

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