By Alison Fox
December 13, 2019

The International Space Station will soon receive a shipment of hemp and coffee seeds — all for research purposes, of course.

The seeds, being transported by a SpaceX cargo flight in March, are headed into space so researchers can study how zero gravity affects the metabolic pathways of the plants, according to agricultural technology company Front Range Biosciences (FRB).

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard takes off during the Demo-1 mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 2, 2019.
| Credit: JIM WATSON/Getty Images

The company, which is based in Colorado, is sending up to 480 plant cell cultures, which will remain in space for a month. They will be held in an incubator that will regulate their temperature.

“This is one of the first times anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on hemp and coffee cell cultures," Dr. Jonathan Vaught, the 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."

The experiment, which is being done in partnership with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will be monitored remotely Colorado. Its purpose is to determine if plant cells undergo genetic mutations while in space.

Once the study is over, the seeds will be returned to earth where scientists will examine if “microgravity and space radiation exposure altered the plants gene expression,” according to FRB.

“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, the 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 experiment comes as commercial space travel is becoming less of a sci-fi fantasy and closer to reality. In 2025, the Von Braun Rotating Space Station is due to be complete, likely becoming the first-ever commercial space station.

Space tourism is inching nearer to happening with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic working to bring people to new heights.