Technology used by NASA scientists to grow plants in outer space could speed the development of new soybean varieties on Earth.

Eric Christophersen and Raymond Bula, partners in Rapigen, L.L.C., Madison, WI, have developed a growth chamber for soybeans. It's modeled after a similar unit that was tested aboard the Mir space station earlier this year.

Group III and IV soybeans grown in the computer-controlled apparatus reach maturity 55 to 65 days after planting, says Christophersen. Up to 75 soybean plants can be grown in the Plexiglas and metal chamber at one time.

Using the chamber, plant breeders could grow five to six generations of soybeans per year vs. three or four using other methods, he says.

Soybeans grown in the chamber produce seed with a germination rate of nearly 100%.

The partners, working with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, are manufacturing the chambers and hope to license the technology to associations, universities and private seed and biotech companies.

A beneficial mix of light, nutrients, pressure, temperature and humidity are combined and monitored within the chamber's sealed environment to speed growth, according to Christophersen.

Standard nutrients are applied; no growth hormones or plant growth regulators are used.

For proprietary reasons, he can't reveal many details about the invention. But he says it speeds plant growth by controlling the environment at various stages of the life cycle.

The partners have also used the growth chamber for wheat and may develop one for corn.