In Cape Canaveral, Florida, pharmaceuticals giant DuPont will today [Thursday] send soybeans into space to discover more about one of the world’s most widely consumed crops.

DuPont has partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to conduct an exploration of soybean development by launching and growing soybean plants in space during NASA’s space shuttle flight scheduled for takeoff 30 May.

The research will determine whether plants grow differently in space and examine the effects of zero-gravity on plant growth and development. The soybeans-in-space launch is the first initiative to grow a complete soybean crop in space; from planting the seed to harvesting the grain.

DuPont’s seed-producing subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and WCSAR will study the harvested seed from soybean plants grown in space to find out if they have improved oil, protein, carbohydrates or secondary metabolites that could benefit farmers and consumers.

“This is an incredible scientific opportunity for us and our partners,” said Dr. Tom Corbin, DuPont researcher on the project. “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.”

According to the United Soybean Board, soybeans are the largest single source of protein meal and vegetable oil in the human diet. In the US, soybeans provide 80% of the edible consumption of fats and oils. In 2000, 54% of the world’s soybean trade originated from the US, with soybean and product exports totalling more than US$6.6bn.

The joint initiative builds on Advanced Astroculture technologies developed by WCSAR that have proven successful in growing other plants in space. Astroculture controls the input of variables and conditions necessary for plant growth such as temperature, water, humidity, light, atmospheric conditions and nutrients.