Colorado company is sending weed and coffee plants to space onboard one of Elon Musk’s rockets… for science

Colorado company is sending weed and coffee plants to space onboard one of Elon Musk’s rockets… for science

What else would you expect from Colorado scientists?

CultureDecember 20, 2019 By Will Brendza

Hemp and coffee are both insanely useful plants. On its own hemp is a super-plant: the seeds can be made into cooking oil, fuel, and body care products; the stalk can produce extremely durable paper, fabric, rope-chord, plastics, insulation and fiber board; the leaves can be synthesized into CBD which has innumerable medicinal uses.

And coffee… well, coffee is one of the most productive natural drinks known to man. Coffee helps people get shit done.

But what if we could make those plants even more useful, even more productive and more resistant to environmental challenges? That would be pretty rad. And it’s why a company from Colorado is organizing an experiment to send both coffee and hemp plants into space, to test how plant cells respond to space variables.

Sadly, it isn’t an experiment to test how bent astronauts can get smoking dank and sipping joe in space. It’s an experiment aimed at genetically altering the plants via exposure to zero-gravity; an experiment that is meant to generate dollar bills.

“This is one of the first times anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and space flight on hemp and coffee cell cultures," said Dr. Jonathan Vaught, Co-Founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences (FRB), the company behind this experiment, in a press release. "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.”

In collaboration with Space Cells and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU), Front Range Bio-sciences is sending 480 plant cultures aboard the SpaceX CRS-20 cargo flight to the ISS. There they will be kept in a space-made incubator on board the Space Station, that will regulate the environmental conditions for the plants to grow in.

Down on Earth, in Boulder, Colorado, scientists from CU will be closely monitoring those samples remotely.

After about a month (~30 days) the samples will be returned to Earth and sent back to FRB for analysis. The hope is, that when the plants come back they are genetically different in some useful way.  

“These are big ideas we're pursuing and there's a massive opportunity to bring to market new Chemotypes, as well as Plants that can better adapt to drought and cold conditions,” Vaught said. “We expect to prove through these and other missions that we can adapt the food supply to climate change.”

Essentially, they’re firing hemp and coffee plants into space, letting them grow in zero-gravity conditions, to see if they make some kind of super-boosted climate change and/or drought resistant hemp or coffee. And if they do, there will be some serious market potential.

If they don’t, no harm done — FRB still gets to publish their results, and they still get bragging rights for being the first company to test hemp and coffee plants in space.

“We are excited to learn more about both hemp and coffee gene expression in microgravity and how that will inform our breeding programs,” said Dr. Reggie Gaudino, VP of Research and Development at FRB.

This experiment could prove to be extremely fruitful for coffee lovers and cannabis users all around the world. Currently, global coffee supply sits directly in the shadow of climate change, and many in the industry believe that good coffee will become increasingly harder to find and more expensive to buy as climate change worsens. It’s why companies like Starbucks have already started reaching out to their suppliers to ensure they have future access to product.

And hemp (and cannabis, too) can be a fickle crop. Hemp grain is thin-walled and fragile, making growing, harvest, storage and transport challenging tasks that requires a lot of care and resources. During their growing season hemp plants can also be extremely susceptible to environmental changes, like a drop or spike in temperature.

If FRB’s experiment can increase the resiliency of those two plants, we can rest easy knowing that, no matter how bad climate change gets, we will still have coffee to sip on and hemp to do all of those hemp things with.

Though they made no mention of it, this experiment will also give scientists a hint as to if hemp and coffee plants could potentially make it to another planet, like, let’s say, Mars. Astronauts on Mars are going to need coffee by Jove, and if they can grow the plants themselves, they’ll have a consistent and renewable source of that beany goodness. And hell, they could probably make some serious cash selling Mars-grown coffee to Earthlings suffering from climate change.

Hemp, though, would be the real game changer for Mars colonists. That plant has medicinal, textile, structural, and even culinary uses. Something that can be turned into so many different useful resources would be extremely valuable for people stuck on a planet with very little else in the way of plant-life. Hemp could become the one of the most important vegetative aspects of life in a Martian colony.

And, with a little genetic modification, you could grow some dank extra-terrestrial THC flower and burn one while watching the Martian sunset.

The SpaceX cargo ship that will be carrying FRB’s hemp and coffee cultures to the ISS isn’t scheduled for launch until 2020 — so it might be a while before we get results back from this research. But if it’s going to make coffee and hemp more resilient to climate change, then it’s well-worth the wait.

And if it means we can get coffee and hemp to Mars someday, then this experiment could literally change the future of this solar system.