At approximately 8pm EST on Wednesday, January 13, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Florida. Having successfully dropped off its three tons of hardware and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) 12 hours earlier, the capsule-like craft returned laden with a more miscellaneous cargo. Inside were stem cells, a sextant designed for emergency navigation in deep space, and tissue chips created to help treat heart conditions on Earth. And nestled alongside them, 320 snippets of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines, individually wrapped in small bundles of soil and carefully placed in containers, each vine nestled inside its own beehive-like cell.

Sending fancy French grapes into orbit might sound like an expensive PR stunt. There is, after all, a long history of shooting foods into space for no good reason. The tandoori lamb chop, the chicken nugget, and the haggis attached to a weather balloon and shot 20 miles above Earth to celebrate Burns Night, to name but a few. But these grapevines are no gimmick, insist Space Cargo Unlimited, the French startup behind the experiment. By sending the vines to grow in the harsh conditions of the ISS for the last ten months (along with 12 bottles of Bordeaux red wine) the company hopes to create plants hardy enough to survive the ever harsher conditions here on Earth. And, in so doing, it’s one of a number of private research companies that believe the solution to feeding a growing global population, amidst ever worsening climate change, could be found somewhere in space.

Floating lamb chops aside, food has been a big part of scientific investigations carried out on board the ISS for years. Lettuce, Chinese cabbage and red Russian kale have all been successfully grown on Nasa’s Vegetable Production System – a small space garden, about the size of a suitcase, on which around six plants can grow from a ‘pillow’ of tailored nutrients. There have also been fresh radishes grown in mini labs and even a cultured beef steak cultivated on board. But these experiments have largely been done with a singular aim: to find a way to feed astronauts with fresh produce on the type of deep space missions Nasa has planned for the next decade.

What Space Cargo Unlimited is attempting is quite different. Rather than feed astronauts, it hopes to use the research to better feed the rest of us. The idea is that exposing the vines (and later on, other types of crop) to microgravity plus high levels of radiation on the ISS will trigger the organisms to evolve and develop more resilient traits. Traits that would leave them far better suited to the severe terrestrial conditions brought about as a result of climate change.

On Earth plants already have hardwired responses to common stressors, such as temperature, chemicals or drought, explains Michael Lebert, a senior biologist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and scientific director of SCU. But by plunging them into space you introduce a stressor they’ve never encountered before, the absence of gravity, which triggers the plants to find inventive ways to adapt. “The more distinct the stressors, the higher the rate of evolution is,” Lebert says. “A rearrangement in genome, a rearrangement in epigenetics, that’s what’s triggered in microgravity.” Though the plant ultimately can’t adapt to survive in space, in its effort to adapt and rearrange to its new conditions it could develop characteristics for resilience it never would on Earth.

The impact of space on humans is well documented. During the famous ‘Twins Study’ in 2015 Mark Kelly remained on Earth, while his twin brother Scott spent nearly a year on the ISS during which time researchers could draw direct comparisons between their biologies. It showed that Scott’s genes activated in brand new ways, altering his immune system, bone formation, and eyesight. Even once he’d returned to Earth, around seven per cent of his gene expression remained changed. Studies have already shown that a similar divergence happens with plants and other organisms.

Seedlings from the Thaliana plant, a small white flowering plant native in Africa, sent to the ISS back in 2013 developed different genetic responses related to disease, cold and drought compared to those left on Earth. Their roots developed new patterns of ‘skewing,’ for example, a way to navigate below ground for additional water and nutrients. Certain types of algae too have been shown to grow more rapidly and produce more oil in low orbit. Only in January, microgravity conditions helped researchers at the ISS Vegetable Production System perform a plant transplant between two different types of lettuce, a transplant that normally would’ve killed them.

Now safely back on Earth, the grapevines will be rehydrated, replanted and closely observed for signs of any change to their own genetic expression. As well as checking for changes in their response to stressors, like temperature and salt levels in soil, researchers will take samples from their buds to check for alterations in their metabolism and metabolic pathways, says Lebert. For example, do they produce the same chemical compounds that give us flavour and nutrients? Plant chemicals that can determine colour, quality, taste and an ability to combat disease. If more resilient characteristics do emerge, the plan is to use the vines as the means to cultivate new hardier species of grapevines and sell to the world’s wine industry.

The results will add to a growing, but still limited pool of research. And with Nasa more preoccupied with feeding its astronauts, Space Cargo Unlimited is one of a handful of private research companies looking to plug the gap. The firm is starting with wine as it’s the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to reacting to tiny variations in its environment, says Nicholas Gaume, Space Cargo Unlimited co-founder and CEO. Rising temperatures means the average wine harvest in Burgundy, France, already happens 13 days earlier than in 1988, the grapes growing with lower acidity and higher sugar thanks to the warmer climes, pushing up alcohol content. The finished product is what Gaume calls a “multi-component biological liquid,” combining yeast, bacteria and polyphenols, making its composition particularly sensitive to changes in the environment. It’s why Space Cargo Unlimited added a dozen bottles of red wine to their ISS shipment, set to be tasted by a viticulture expert in March.

But there’s potential far beyond grapes and wine.

In 2020, Colorado-based Front Range Biosciences sent both hemp and coffee tissue cultures into space with a similar goal, to examine the impact of zero gravity on the plants’ metabolic pathways. “The results of the research could help growers and scientists identify new varieties or chemical expressions in the plant,” says co-founder and CEO Jonathan Vaught. As part of the experiment nearly 500 plant cell cultures were sent to the ISS in an incubator and monitored remotely. Now back on Earth the team has begun the process of growing out these cultures to determine the effects of microgravity on the plants’ gene expression – a process that could take up to two years. It isn’t clear what the result will be but “by learning how plants adapt in a new environment — space, in this example — we will be able to better understand, and subsequently breed, various crops so that they thrive in new environments and conditions,” says Vaught.

In November 2020 too, Texan commercial space service company Nanoracks announced its plans to create a dedicated research team focused exclusively on using the space environment to produce hardier agricultural products. CEO Jeffrey Manber visited a Chinese research team that had been growing seedlings on satellites. When they were planted in a barren stretch of desert, some thrived way beyond their equivalents grown only on Earth. “The conclusion was that genetic mutations for space grown biomass does occur at higher rates, and there was something happening that remains difficult to replicate on the Earth,” Manber wrote.

If all this research is successful, it could also have some clear advantages over other current methods for tweaking plant genetics, such as genetic modification – adding in brand new genes from one species to another, or gene-editing – making changes to existing genes. In Europe, both approaches are currently restricted, with zero approved gene-edited crops on the EU market, and little signs of this changing despite vehement criticism from some elements of the scientific community. For Lebert too, gene technology manually redirects the way that plant genetics develop. “Whereas what we’re saying is give plants the time to adapt, and they might do so in totally different ways to what we might expect.”

Though it’s too early to share definitive results for the grapevines, Gaume says that he and the team have so far been “overwhelmed” by what they’ve seen. “If we learn how to do this with vine plants, we can apply it to so many others too.” Tomatoes, bananas, any type of crop could be blasted into low orbit to test the theory, he insists. “The dilemma we all face is, how do you create agriculture that is able to feed humanity as it grows, and also able to face the stressors of climate change?” Space, it turns out, might provide part of the solution.

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