What happens to cannabis in space? That’s the question at the heart of an exciting new mission to study the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cannabis plants. Front Range Biosciences, a Colorado-based agricultural technology company working in the hemp and coffee industries, is partnering with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to send cannabis (and coffee) tissue cultures to space. The experiment is the first of its kind, and it will begin aboard the SpaceX CRS-20 cargo flight scheduled for March 2020.
SpaceX will deliver the cannabis tissue samples to the International Space Station, where NASA astronauts and scientists back on Earth will study whether and how plant cells experience genetic mutations while in space. Along with its partners, Front Range Biosciences is eager to see if the conditions of space produce new strains of hemp with commercial applications.
Company Wants to Study Effects of Microgravity and Space Radiation on Hemp
In March 2020, nearly 500 cannabis cell cultures will travel aboard a SpaceX cargo flight to the International Space Station. Once they arrive, NASA astronauts will transport the cultures to a space-made incubator on the ISS, which will be their home for about 30 days.
Over the course of the month-long experiment, BioServe will regulate the conditions and temperature in the incubator remotely, from an operational center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Then, after a month of exposure to the microgravity conditions of space, the ISS will jettison the incubator back to Earth.
Once the cannabis tissue samples return home, Front Range Biosciences will analyze them. The ag-tech company is looking to see how microgravity and space radiation mutate the DNA and RNA of the cannabis plants. Changes to the genetic makeup of the plant have the potential to produce novel gene expressions—in other words, different strains or “chemotypes” of cannabis that it would be impossible to create on Earth.
It’s possible, says Co-Founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences Dr. Jonathan Vaught, that those mutations could produce cannabis plants that can thrive in hostile conditions or grow in atypical climates.
“There is science to support the theory that plants in space experience mutations,” Vaught explains in a press release announcing the experiment. “This is an opportunity to see whether those mutations hold up once brought back to earth and if there are new commercial applications.”
Is This the First Step Toward Space Weed?
SpaceX has landed in hot water over weed before, with co-founder Elon Musk‘s ill-conceived 420 joke and penchant for smoking weed on podcasts. This time, however, things are a little different. In the first place, the cannabis samples SpaceX is delivering to the ISS won’t contain more than 0.3 percent THC. Instead, SpaceX is delivering hemp samples to space, not buds containing THC.
But given hemp’s incredible number of uses, from medicine to food to textiles and building materials, there’s plenty of reason to study what happens to it in space. Perhaps one day hemp will be the crop of choice for the first colonies on Mars. Or at least that’s one idea Front Range Biosciences has.
Another is being able to cultivate breeds of hemp that can survive in adverse conditions on Earth. Climate change and rising temperatures mean many environments that have supported crops for millennia may no longer be able to. We may have to grow cannabis in places where it doesn’t typically grow. And mutations caused by space radiation and microgravity could show us how.