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Killer Tomatoes From Space Seeds? Nope, State Fair First Prize 3/8

September 11, 1990

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) _ Seeds that some had feared might produce mutated killer tomatoes after nearly six years in space have been vindicated - they produced fruit that won first prize at the Kansas State Fair.

Six tomatoes grown from seeds that were part of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration experiment beat more than three dozen other entries.

Kansas Cosmosphere planetarium director Roger Hoefer grew the tomatoes. The space museum in the central Kansas town of Hutchinson received seeds from NASA to show teachers how to do class projects with them.

″I’ve grown tomatoes all of my life and I’ve never grown tomatoes as pretty as these were,″ Hoefer said.

When he entered the plate of six Rutgers tomatoes, he noticed some other entries dwarfed his. Rutgers, named after the university where the variety was developed years ago, is an old, stable but small tomato.

But the judge looked not for size but for conformity, uniformity of shape and ripeness and freedom from skin blemishes and defects.

Hoefer’s space tomatoes were among the 10 plates of entries the judge separated immediately from the rest. Closer examination put Hoefer’s entry in first in Saturday’s judging.

Hoefer didn’t learn of the results until Monday.

″I couldn’t believe it,″ he said. ″I looked down and they had a blue ribbon on them.″

More that 12 million seeds were on a satellite sent into orbit in 1984 for 10 months of exposure to the radiation of space. The idea was to test the durability of possible space station building materials and to see if the radiation would cause mutations in the tomatoes.

But instead of 10 months, the satellite wasn’t retrieved until after nearly six years.

The seeds were distributed to 4 million students and others nationwide for planting.

Controversy erupted when a NASA contractor warned there was a remote possibility the seeds might produce toxic fruit. Some teachers dropped the plant project. NASA suggested the tomatoes not be eaten.

But Hoefer said Cosmosphere employees and volunteers have been eating the tomatoes all summer.

Hoefer and Chuck Marr, a Kansas State University horticulturist who supervised the tomato competition, agreed that growing conditions and care had more to do with the prize tomatoes than the fact their seeds spent time in space. Hoefer grew his in a greenhouse.

Hoefer said control plants grown from seeds of the same variety that stayed on Earth yielded equal quality fruit.

He said two plants showed abnormalities. One had unusual blossom clusters and produced small, elongated tomatoes. The fruit had poor flavor and few seeds. Another plant also had odd blossoms and in one instance produced a pea- size tomato that never ripened.

Hoefer is keeping the odd plants alive in case scientists at NASA or Park Seed Co. of Greenwood, S.C., want to do tissue tests to looked for genetic damage.

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