Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will soon be getting a few hundred little green visitors courtesy of SpaceX. As soon as March 2020, the company’s CRS-20 cargo flight will transport up to 480 hemp – a legalized and non-psychoactive variety of cannabis – and coffee tissue culture samples to the space station so that Earth-bound researchers may study the effects of microgravity on plants.
A statement released by Front Range Biosciences (FRB) notes that the high-value biotech research company has partnered with SpaceCells USA Inc. and the University of Colorado (UC), Boulder to see how zero gravity affects the plants’ metabolic pathways and determine whether plants genetically mutate or undergo gene expression in space.
As many as 480 plant cell cultures will be kept in a space-made incubator that regulates temperature and is remotely monitored by BioServe Space Technologies at UC Boulder. FRB researchers will examine the plant samples and evaluate RNA to determine how microgravity and space radiation alter gene expression following about 30 days in space.
"This is one of the first times anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on hemp and coffee cell cultures," Dr Jonathan Vaught, co-founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, said in a statement. "There is science to support the theory that plants in space experience mutations. This is an opportunity to see whether those mutations hold up once brought back to earth and if there are new commercial applications."
The space tourism industry is a burgeoning field. A report published earlier this year indicates that the private space industry will double its worth in the next decade to reach $926 billion in the next 20 years. NASA recently announced a new initiative to bring commercial businesses and private astronauts to low-Earth orbit while SpaceX is working on bringing a crew of artists on a weeklong 386,200-kilometer (240,000-mile) trek to the Moon aboard the Big F---king Rocket. Virgin Galactic took its first passenger to space in February onboard a commercial spaceship and Russia says it is going to start letting tourists go out on spacewalks outside of the ISS for the cool price of $100 million. As human presence becomes more common in space, scientists say it is important to bring plants along for the ride for both “aesthetic and practical reasons.”
“We already know from our pioneering astronauts that fresh flowers and gardens on the International Space Station create a beautiful atmosphere and let us take a little piece of Earth with us on our journeys,” writes NASA in a blog post. “They’re good for our psychological well-being on Earth and in space. They also will be critical for keeping astronauts healthy on long-duration missions.”
Previous plant-growing operations in space have led to a number of findings, including NASA’s Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie. This suitcase-sized garden not only adds fresh food to the astronauts’ diet but also helps researchers to understand how plants use other environmental factors, such as light, in the absence of gravity. Similarly, the enclosed and automated Advanced Plant Habitat helps scientists to understand the relationship between microgravity and plant lignin, which gives structure to plants in much the same way as bones do to animals.
When it comes to hemp and coffee, researchers say their work may help to identify new varieties of chemical expression in plants and provide insights into how plants manage the stress of space travel.