SpaceX Is Flying Cannabis to the ISS so Scientists Can See If It Mutates

An agricultural technology company has announced that it will be sending cannabis to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of a scientific experiment.

Plant cell cultures of hemp—a variety of cannabis which has very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)—and coffee will be transported to the ISS aboard the next SpaceX resupply mission scheduled for March 2020.

The company, Front Range Biosciences—in collaboration with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder—wants to investigate whether the unique conditions in space can lead to genetic mutations in the plants.

Up to 480 plant cell cultures will be kept in a special incubator that regulates temperature aboard the ISS for around 30 days. The cells will then be returned to Earth where scientists from Front Range Biosciences will examine them to see how microgravity and exposure to space radiation has affected the gene expression of the plants.

"This is one of the first times anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on hemp and coffee cell cultures," Jonathan Vaught, co-founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences said in a statement.

"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," he said.

According to the company, the research could expand our understanding of how plants react to the stresses of space travel. This in turn could have implications for growing plants on Earth. Learning how plants respond to unique environments—like space—can help agricultural technology companies to develop new, hardier varieties which can grow in harsh conditions.

marijuana, cannabis, hemp
Stock photo: Plant cell cultures of hemp will be sent to the ISS in 2020 as part of a scientific experiment. iStock

This is significant because as the planet's climate changes, an increasing number of plants will not be able to grow in areas where they once thrived.

"These are big ideas we're pursuing and there's a massive opportunity to bring to market new plants that can better adapt to drought and cold conditions," Peter McCullagh, CEO of SpaceCells, said in a statement. "We expect to prove through these and other missions that we can adapt the food supply to climate change."

The team hope that they can conduct future experiments in which astronauts will harvest and preserve plants at different points in their growth cycle.

"This is a fascinating area of study that has considerable potential," said Louis Stodieck, Chief Scientist of BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

While cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, hemp—which contains no more than 0.3 percent THC—was removed as a Schedule I controlled substance in 2018. The plant is extremely versatile and can be used to make everything from textiles, rope, clothing and food, to paper, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel.

It also contains high quantities of the compound CBD (cannabidiol) which has been touted as a treatment for a host of health issues.