Rice in Space

Thailand is currently working on a project that could send local rice into space

Story and Photo by WEENA NOPPAKUNTHONG

Thailand still lags behind many countries in terms of research and development.

The IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2007, published by a leading business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, reveals Thailand only invested 0.24 percent of its GDP (gross domestic product) for research and development in 2005. Malaysia spent two-and-a-half times more than Thailand, while Taiwan, Korea, the US, and Japan spent at least ten times more.

However, one research project, if achievable, could soon turn eyes and ears. The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), an agency under the Ministry of Science and Technology, is working on an experiment to grow rice in space with the collaboration of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).

Screening candidates

Experiments are currently conducted at the ground level in NSTDA's laboratory of the National Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center (Biotec).

"We are looking at how factors like light intensity, different durations of sunlight, temperatures, different concentrations of carbon dioxide and different amounts of ultraviolet radiation affect the plants' growth," says Biotec director Prof Dr Morakot Tanticharoen.

If Jaxa approves the results of these studies, explains Dr Morakot, "then our project to grow Thai rice breeds will be chosen to participate in a space experiment aboard Japan's international space station (Kibo), possibly as soon as 2010."

To be chosen, Jaxa will first consider how much impact the research will have, says Dr Suriyan Cha-um, the Biotec researcher in charge of the experiment.

His earlier research proposal was on flowering plants, but Jaxa opted for a plant that could yield edible products because they are concerned about maximizing the impact of the research. Hence, Biotec chose rice.

A mission with Nasa

The US space agency, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), recently launched its space shuttle, Endeavour, in March from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The astronauts brought the first segment of Kibo, the Japanese space module, with them and attached it to the international space station.

Nasa plans to launch more shuttle flights, such as one on May 31, to transport the Kibo Pressurized Module, which will be the station's biggest laboratory.

If the rice experiment is chosen, the rice samples will be brought on one of these shuttle flights.

Why experiment?

"The zero-gravity experiment aims to contribute to developing better and more productive strains of rice," says Assoc Prof Dr Sakarindr Bhumiratana, president of NSTDA.

The research project is part of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between Jaxa and NSTDA. NSTDA is involved in other joint research projects with more than 15 countries, such as France, US, Australia, Singapore and India.

Besides Dr Suriyan, the key researcher, an assistant researcher and technician would look at the chemical factors for rice growth, so as to control its growth to fit the vessel.

Because the chamber that will be sent to the space station is only 10 centimeters high, says Dr Suriyan, we have to make our rice plant grow within that height through the flowering stage, as opposed to the typical 1.5 meter height.

A Japanese researcher, who is keen on the physical factors, including the different environmental factors, is also involved.

Growing up with rice paddies

As a young boy growing up in rice paddies in Phrae province, earning a PhD from Mahidol University was a far-fetched dream for Dr Suriyan. He studied at local primary and secondary schools, while helping his parents grow rice for their family consumption in a five-rai plot of land.

Dr Suriyan pursued his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Bangkok, specifying his thesis for both his master's degree and doctorate degree on rice. As a Biotec researcher, he is the perfect candidate to be in charge of the rice-in-space experiment.

Building a project from the lab

The experiment involves four breeds of rice - KK 6, Khao Dok Mali 105 or Jasmine rice, Pathum Thani 1 and Japanese rice. The Thai rice breeds have different characteristics, adding to the variety of the experiment.

KK6 and Khao Dok Mali 105 are typically grown in northern and northeastern Thailand, where rice is grown once a year during the rainy season, explains Dr Suriyan.

The two breeds respond well to short days, meaning they produce grains during the shorter days in winter, which is why harvest time is usually around November. The difference between the two is that KK6 is sticky rice.

Pathum Thani 1 is grown in the central region. It depends on irrigation water and rainfall. This breed does not respond to the duration of daylight to produce grains.

The basic experiments at the ground level aim to find out how to control the environmental conditions that trigger the rice plants in a vessel to flower, such as controlling the amount of carbon dioxide, light, temperature, and moisture, explains Dr Suriyan.

The chemical factors include the nutrients and chemicals used to limit the growth of the plant so that it will fit the vessel. He believes that the intensity of carbon dioxide and the sugar that the plant collected will trigger the plant to flower.

It is not earth-shattering to grow plants in a vessel and see them enter the flowering stage, "but if I am able to conclude that increasing the intensity of carbon dioxide and increasing the amount of sugar in the plant will trigger flowering, then that is the kind of science that I want to understand," says Dr Suriyan.

After flowering, the next step is to get the plant to produce grains.

Stepping into space

The potential experiment in the space station will have the same controlled conditions as in the chamber, except there will be zero-gravity.

The hypothesis is to see whether the rice plantlet will flower in zero-gravity conditions, says Dr Suriyan.

Later, if we know what factors trigger flowering or what triggers their growth, then we can trigger it to produce grains, says Dr Suriyan, and increase productivity. The interval for the harvest time could be shorter and harvesting will be more frequent, he says.

Need for practicality

"Thai scientists are competent, but at the end, it is how they apply (their research) for the users," says Dr Suriyan. He says there is a gap between the researchers and the intended beneficiaries, such as farmers, agriculturalists and industrial factories.

He adds that some researchers become well known in the international scientific community, but not within their own country because their knowledge might not be applicable to the needs of their homeland.

This news article was published in Bangkok Post, 20 May 2008 issue

 

Posted on 21 May 2008.

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