In 2019, Front Range Biosciences (FRB) teamed up with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) to take cannabis (and coffee) plants to the final frontier.
On March 6 of that year, hundreds of plant cell cultures were loaded onboard the SpaceX CRS-20 cargo flight, which was bound for the International Space Station (ISS). U.S. astronauts would tend to the cannabis and coffee plants for the next 30 days, becoming the first of their genera (cannabis sativa and coffea, respectively) to grow 248 miles above the Earth.
But the mission wasn’t intended to provide astronauts with fresh bud and beans. The zero-gravity conditions of the ISS offered the researchers at FRB a unique opportunity to observe how space conditions affect cannabis and coffee genetics.
“Ultimately, we wanted to better understand how plant cells underwent gene expression changes or genetic mutations while in a microgravity environment,” says Dr. Jonathan Vaught, cofounder and CEO of FRB, the Boulder-based hemp and cannabis genetics platform company that spearheaded this research.
“We were very pleased with this first experiment,” he adds.
Once the 480 cannabis and coffee plant cell cultures arrived on the ISS, they were kept in special-made microhabitats inside a temperature-regulated incubator. There, they grew in zero gravity, under constant observation by BioServe Space Technologies.
Then, a month later, the plant cell cultures (now sapling plants) hitched a ride back to Earth on the Space Dragon capsule.
According to Vaught, the data this experiment and FRB’s subsequent genetic analysis yielded is valuable on several levels. First, it’s helping provide a better understanding of what kinds of gene expression occurs when crops like cannabis and coffee are grown in space and how they respond to zero-gravity conditions.
“On Earth, plants are constantly working to defy gravity in order to rise above the ground, but since they were not utilizing this energy in zero-gravity conditions, we were able to observe where different biological changes started to occur,” Vaught says. “The results of the research could help growers and scientists identify new varieties or chemical expressions in the plant.”
Which would be lucrative knowledge for farmers growing these cash crops if it means they can increase the plants’ genetic resiliency. Cannabis is an extremely sensitive crop that responds dramatically to changes in temperature, moisture and exposure to other environmental factors. Changing the threshold of what it could endure could open up vast new tracts of potential farmland that were previously unusable.
Also, Vaughn points out, “This is important in the context of climate change.”
By exposing these plants to stressors (or in this case, taking away the stressor of gravity), FRB hopes to gain a better understanding of stress responses in these plants. Once this is known, FRB can engineer trait-specific cannabis strains to withstand challenges like temperature changes, drought and disease.
“There are many regions here on Earth that no longer have viable growing conditions to support agriculture,” Vaught says. “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.”
While FRB was the first to send cannabis plants into space, it wasn’t the last. Several other companies have begun their own cannabis experiments on the ISS since, including Space Tango out of Kentucky. And although FRB isn’t planning any follow-up space mission studies yet, Vaught is excited to see this area of agricultural science progress.
“With the birth of private space travel, more and more researchers are now able to study the effects of microgravity on various organisms,” he says. “This will also allow FRB to better understand how plants manage the stress of space travel, and set the stage for a whole new area of research for our company and the cannabis industry as a whole.”