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Coffee, Hemp Cells Set for Space Station Study

Coffee beans

Coffee beans (A. Kotok)

6 Mar. 2020. A company is sending cell cultures from hemp and coffee plants to the International Space Station to test effects of weightlessness on the plants’ gene expression. Front Range Biosciences in Lafayette, Colorado says its package of plant cultures are scheduled to be launched tonight aboard a SpaceX cargo flight from the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Front Range Biosciences is an agricultural technology company using genomics and bioinformatics to engineer more resilient and higher-quality plant crops. The company’s two lead products are hemp and coffee, generating new varieties of each plant. The company says its hemp varieties include cannabis plants with higher yields, easier maintenance, varying concentrations of THC, and producers of leaves or oil. Front Range’s coffee plants are designed for growing outside of the usual coffee-belt regions, including on farms in California.

The company prepared a collection of hemp and coffee plant cell cultures on plate habitats, housed in an incubator, for delivery to the International Space Station. Front Range says up to 480 cultures will fly on the space station for some 31 days, monitored directly by crew members, and remotely by BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

After the incubation period, the cultures will be returned to earth in a SpaceX Dragon capsule, where Front Range researchers will test the cultures for effects of zero-gravity on gene expression in the plant cells. The company plans to regenerate and grow the plants to maturity, where they will be compared to plants grown from identical cultures kept on earth in similar plate habitats.

Bioserve Space Technologies is a lab at University of Colorado that designs and builds life science experiments for space environments, particularly effects of zero-gravity conditions. Much of the lab’s work is designed for the International Space Station, or ISS.

Jonathan Vaught, co-founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, says in a statement released through PR Newswire that the company is eager “to discover whether any potential changes in the underlying biology of hemp and coffee plants in microgravity will enable us to unlock new traits with commercial applications in our breeding program.”

The Front Range package is part of a 5,600 pound cargo payload containing a number of scientific experiments aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft. The experiments include organ-chip models of a human intestine, designed by Emulate Inc. in Boston, a spin-off enterprise from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. In December 2018, Science & Enterprise reported on Emulate’s program to test its intestine chip in zero gravity for effects of weightlessness on immune functions and bacterial infections in the gastrointestinal tract.

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