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Fed: Space seeds growing conservation efforts

By Catarina Fraga Matos
29 Jun 2009 4:29 PM

SYDNEY, June 29 AAP - Hopes for self-sustaining human colonies in space have been renewed by an Australian experiment with native plant seeds.

The seeds, taken into space last year, showed no signs of "fatigue" or damage after surviving more than 28,000 orbits of the earth.

The seedlings of the golden wattle, waratah, flannel flower and wollemi pine accompanied NASA astronaut Dr Gregory Chamitoff on his six-month space odyssey.

At the request of NSW's Botanic Gardens Trust, Dr Chamitoff took the seeds on the Space Shuttle Discovery mission to the International Space Station in May 2008.

While tests are still being conducted on the seedlings, which returned to earth in November, conservationists are encouraged by preliminary findings.

The seeds are being germinated and "fast-track" aged at the Trust's NSW Seedbank at Mount Annan Botanic Garden in Sydney's southwest.

"With habitats under increasing threat, seedbanking on earth, and perhaps in space, will be part of an integrated conservation program for species threatened by extinction due to global warming or other sudden changes to their habitat," Trust executive director Dr Tim Entwisle said on Monday.

Dr Chamitoff echoed these concerns, stating conservation was the main motivation behind his involvement.

"It is a terrific project, a very neat conservation effort and that's a very great thing to be a part of," he told AAP.

"As a species (humans) have an impact upon the other species of the world and we have the possibility of damaging the environment where we lose the biodiversity because of our actions.

"We also are a species that understands these things and, therefore, I think we have a moral imperative to do these kinds of things and protect the environment."

For NASA, the findings also present the opportunity to plan for possible space colonies.

"As soon as we get back to the moon and even before we reach Mars, we're going to have to figure out how to recycle as much as we can and provide as much food sources as we can in space," Dr Chamitoff said.

"From NASA's perspective, we are interested in seeds that might be hardy enough to survive long duration exposure to the space environment and then germinate in greenhouses in Space or on other planets.

"Ultimately, this will be essential to support self-sustaining outposts or colonies in Space with food and oxygen."

The NSW Seedbank tests on the seedlings will monitor their growth, vigour and lifespan compared to control seeds.

The seeds the newly-grown plants produce will also be closely monitored.