Despite what The Jetsons and your stoned conversations in college may have predicted, we are almost two decades into the 21st century, and we still don’t live in outer space. (We also don’t have flying cars, robot maids, or whatever the hell Spacely Space Sprockets are supposed to be, but let’s focus on one thing at a time here.) That doesn’t mean, however, that scientists aren’t trying to figure out how to create the conditions for various forms of life to thrive in space — and one of those forms of life is marijuana.
Front Range Biosciences, an agricultural biotech company, has just announced that it will be sending cell cultures of the hemp plant to the International Space Station on a resupply trip in March 2020. (Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that contains relatively little THC, and was declassified as a Schedule 1 drug just last year.) The purpose of the project is to see whether or not these cells develop any genetic mutations in those conditions, and once they return, scientists will analyze their DNA to see if they have changed at all. (The company is also sending coffee plants, but who cares about that when weed in space is a thing).
The project was developed in conjunction with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies, a research institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. More than 480 cell cultures will be sent to outer space, where they’ll be subject to such environmental factors as exposure to space radiation and zero gravity. The goal is to determine how the plants will evolve in those specific conditions, thus indicating how the hemp plant specifically would hold up in space. This is useful information, considering how many applications there are for the hemp plant, from making fabrics to serving as an alternative to nonbiodegradeable plastic to serving as a major source of cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound that is believed by many to have medicinal benefits (though existing research only supports its efficacy in treating a certain type of epileptic seizures).
But more generally, the purpose of the project is to determine how to engineer plants that thrive in regions that have been affected by climate change. Last year, for instance, Front Range partnered with a specialty coffee company to create crops that can thrive in southern California, which could help take the onus off coffee growers in places like Colombia, which have been disproportionately affected by rising temperatures and reduced sunlight in the region.
Knowing exactly how plant DNA changes in novel environments could be the first step toward genetically engineering hemp plants to thrive in environments that may have undergone similar changes. “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,” Peter McCullagh, CEO of SpaceCells, said in a press release shared with Rolling Stone. “We expect to prove through these and other missions that we can adapt the food supply to climate change.” That’s especially valuable considering that hemp has been proposed by some climate experts as a silver bullet to fighting climate change, as the plant is fast-growing, cost-effective, and biodegradable.
Also: sending weed to space is cool.