BEIJING, May 26 (Xinhua) -- Cranberry lovers may have the chance to savor the fruit with an out-of-this-world origin: A new variety will be developed from seeds that survived a trip to space.
When China's Shenzhou-14 taikonauts returned to Earth last December, they brought home some packages of 50,000 cranberry seeds grown in space.
It is part of the harvest of a 6-month-long breeding experiment aboard the Tiangong space station. Scientists say that the seeds, exposed to deep space, will induce genetic mutations that may create superior varieties on the ground.
The space-bred seeds originated in the city of Fuyuan, northeastern Heilongjiang Province, where China's largest cranberry planting base is located, covering over 280 hectares. Local companies have long grown the fruit using varieties imported from North America.
The "space cranberry seeds" will enrich the germplasm resources of the fruit and help China stay competitive in the global market, said Cheng Zhengxin, an engineer at Red Sea Farm, a cranberry planting company in Fuyuan.
Space breeding refers to exposing seeds and strains to cosmic radiation and microgravity during a spaceflight mission to mutate their genes.
When the space-bred samples are brought back to Earth, scientists will examine and evaluate their mutations. Compared with natural bred types, some are positive, conferring properties favored by farmers, such as greater yields, shorter growth periods, and better resistance to diseases.
These 50,000 space-grown seeds are currently undergoing the soaking and sprouting processes before planting, to promote the cultivation of large and strong seedlings.
Cheng said the selected cranberry varieties would be cultivated for at least four generations before they are likely to have a better mutation with stable genetic traits.
Traditionally associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in the West, cranberries are making inroads in China with a growing number of people believing in the fruit's rich nutrition and health benefits.
Space-induced cranberries will be safe for human consumption, too. Zhao Hui, an expert with the China Academy of Space Technology, said that unlike genetically modified food transferring genes from other species, space-bred seeds undergo a mutation of their own genes only.
With a population of more than 1.4 billion, China has been a pioneering country seeking to apply the technology of space breeding to agricultural farming on the ground.
China conducted its first space breeding experiment in 1987, launching packets of seeds on a satellite and returning them to Earth after exposure to cosmic radiation.
Since then, hundreds of plant species seeds have traveled with dozens of the country's retrievable satellites and Shenzhou manned spaceships.
Over the past three decades, the space breeding program has helped produce more than 300 crop varieties and 700 new types of plants on Earth. The total planting area has exceeded 2.8 million hectares, roughly the size of Massachusetts in the United States.
Growing cranberries has already helped farmers in Fuyuan to rise out of poverty, and the new space-grown cranberry breeding is likely to help them keep raising incomes.
Li Feng, manager of the cranberry planting company Red Sea Farm, said seeds of cranberries were sent into orbit aboard the Shenzhou-14 manned spaceship in June 2022. The company also enjoyed a bumper harvest of cranberries last year, reaching a record high of 1,700 tonnes.
He boasted a video message sent by the Shenzhou-14 crew from the Chinese space station. The three in-orbit taikonauts congratulated Fuyuan on its cranberry festival and wished locals to make high-quality production of the fruit.
"One hectare of cranberries yields roughly the same economic benefit as 50 hectares of rice," Li said. "After five to six years of planting, the fruit will enter the fertile period, which can last 50 to 70 years."
His company is now working with scientists to carry out greenhouse breeding, looking forward to cultivating the "superior space berries." ■