By growing vines on the ISS for the last 10 months, the hope is that more resilient characteristics emerge (better able to cope with climate change), and then use the vines as a means to cultivate new hardier species of grapevines.
Last month, 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, including 320 snippets of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines, individually wrapped in small bundles of soil and carefully placed in containers.
Sending fancy French grapes into orbit might sound like an expensive PR stunt. 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 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 climate change, could be found somewhere in space.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.