The Cosmic Grapevine Blasting grapevines into space could help the wine industry survive climate change.

NASA, Space Cargo Unlimited, Dan-Cristian Pădureț

Early April mornings in Bordeaux’s wine fields are usually when the first buds appear on vines, the châteaux reopen for tourists, and the tasting tours begin. But this April, three nights of sub-zero temperatures falling as low as -5°C brought the threat of a lost harvest in 2021. Growers say it’s the worst frost in memory, with some Bordeaux cooperatives already reporting 90 percent of their crop is wiped out. 

Other vineyards are instead filled with panicking winemakers who have resorted to an age-old practice of lighting fields with rows of paraffin candles or burning hay bales and barrel fires that release plumes of ash so thick they choke the air. As an attempt to ward off the unforgiving frost, the burning can appear as much a ritual of dark magic as a crudely effective way to unleash a cloud of protective smog.

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, the French government has declared an “agricultural disaster.” Yet winegrowers across the region, home to famous estates such as Château Petrus and Château Margaux, are reaching for new techniques to safeguard the future of wine as climatic shocks become ever more common. Perhaps the strangest and most radical response currently playing out, as climate change makes weather patterns less and less predictable, is not harnessing primeval fire but rather the microgravity cosmic-ray bath of spaceflight to alter the DNA of the grapes themselves. 

Sheltered from the frost and smog in a greenhouse in Villenave-d’Ornon, a suburb of the city of Bordeaux, a group of scientists is cultivating the next generation of mutant grapes, which they hope will be resistant to shocks like frost, disease, and drought. The mission, code name CANES, is an unlikely-sounding partnership between the French aerospace startup Space Cargo Unlimited, the University of Bordeaux’s prestigious wine science institute (ISVV), vine grower Mercier, and the European Space Agency. On March 6, 2020, the team took 320 shoots cut from local vines in the winter months before takeoff—all were alive but in hibernation—and launched them aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station. Intended to spend six months there, the vine shoots orbited for 10 months as the coronavirus pandemic raged below, speeding around the Earth some 6,500 times inside hexagonal cells at an orbit 400 kilometers above the Earth. 

The experiment was contrived to be tough on the vines, to see how they would react at a microscopic level. Although sealed inside a capsule, to protect them from the freezing cold and vacuum of space, they were subjected to microgravity and super-accelerated particles known as cosmic rays—radiation that can surge amid solar flares or in distant supernovae. Splash-landing to earth off the coast of Florida in January, the experiment was an attempt to jump-start evolution itself by pushing vines to their limits in an environment so extreme and hostile that genetic mutations and new behaviors are induced.

Nearly every day since late January, lead researcher Stéphanie Cluzet, a professor at Bordeaux University, has examined the 125 vine shoots. 63 are cabernet sauvignon and 62 are merlot, the region’s two most famous grape varieties. She inspects the colors of the leaves, their shapes, and the tiny hairs growing on them. They are growing unevenly. Although Space Cargo Unlimited have announced the vines from space are growing faster than the earthbound control vines (which spent the same time in a fridge in Bordeaux), Cluzet is keen to wait and see. She and her team from the Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) take countless photographs, noting the phenological stage—are the buds swelling, opening, the leaves unfurling—and are there signs of anything unexpected? 

Dosing seeds with radiation still offers a low-cost way to produce crops with beneficial new mutations.

The objective, she says, is to gather the “maximum information” available to discover what changes are hidden inside the cells of the plants. “We want to decipher their secrets—if they have some—because they’ve been placed in a very harsh environment and been on such an unusual journey.” 

But, after all this, the success or failure of the mission now remains to be seen in the greenhouse. In the next year, Cluzet and the mission’s backers hope to dispel any suspicion that this is a simple publicity stunt and instead launch a new biotech business, all of which will require them to show that such a far-fetched method is able to produce useful and controllable traits in their space-faring vines.

Seeds in space

Space mutagenesis or “space-induced mutation breeding” is a process that transports seeds or living organisms (like the vine canes) to space, where cosmic radiation is stronger than on Earth, in order to allow the rays and stressed conditions to induce mutations and, hopefully, bring about beneficial new traits. This has been going on for years, and seeds have been flown on satellites, housed in manned spacecraft, and launched in high-altitude balloons. Upon return, they are planted and observed over the course of at least two generations, where researchers will select for positive traits including bigger yields and tolerance of drought, disease, or frost. In many cases, they are cross-bred with existing varieties to isolate the positive traits and screen out unwanted variations, such as, say, an unpleasant change in the fruit’s taste.

The CANES mission is just one of a slate of experiments in space breeding now taking place under the aegis of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. They involve an increasing array of private sector actors, including Luxembourg-based Space Cargo Unlimited and Nanoracks, a Houston-native space hardware business which has partnered with the government of Abu Dhabi to develop “the first-ever commercial ag tech space research program,” dubbed the StarLab Space Farming Center, to develop crops that will thrive in the Emirate’s desert climate. 

Until now, China has stood alone in planting crops from space mutagenesis. Starting in 1987, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has sent hundreds of kilograms of seeds or tissues for short space trips ranging from four days to a month, peaking in a 2006 recoverable satellite Shijian 8, which shipped into orbit more than 200 kilograms of seeds and microorganisms covering 152 species. 

Space mutation breeding is “currently one of the important methods for crop improvement,” says Luxiang Liu, director of the National Center of Space Mutagenesis for Crop Improvement at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing. Since 2001, China has identified space mutation breeding as a key continuous national project in its 10th five-year plan, a sweeping strategic document the central government produces to guide economic development. “Over the past 30 years we have developed and officially released over 200 mutant varieties of crops including rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, and various vegetables. In fact, the second most popular variety of wheat among Chinese farmers today, Luyuan 502, comes from space breeding,” writes Liu in an email.

A photograph of canes from wine grape plants.
Vine canes being prepped for takeoff. Space Cargo Unlimited

Grown across an area the size of Switzerland, Luyuan 502 has a yield more than 10 percent higher than the standard wheat variety grown in China, says Liu, with tolerance to drought and a range of climatic conditions. China’s government already counts these benefits of space mutagenesis as part of its key objective to feed more than 20 percent of the world’s population with only about 10 percent of its arable land. According to figures provided to Chinese state media by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, China’s space breeding industry had a direct economic impact of more than 200 billion yuan (around $30 billion) in 2018 and produced over 1.3 million tons of food.

Taking a step beyond genetic mutations, Cluzet says her vines are being observed for “epigenetic modifications.” These are changes not in the DNA sequence but how the genes are expressed. NASA, too, has an experiment in epigenetic changes—sending the so-called “lab rat of the plant world” Arabidopsis thaliana to grow in the International Space Station’s Advanced Plant Habitat—which will also look at whether such modifications can be passed down through generations.

So far, the vines that orbited Earth have grown quickly, the largest showing seven open leaves and measuring nearly a foot in height as of early April—while some still stand not much taller than the four-centimeter snippet that was first cut. In what has been a stressful year for most of us on the planet below, spare a thought for those lonely twigs, which splashed down in a capsule off the coast of Florida on the evening of January 13th, only to immediately get held up in a border-crossing dispute that almost killed them on their return to France, due to their unique provenance. There’s no box to tick on the customs form for this kind of thing. Yet. 

Atomic gardening

In a few months scientists expect to know whether the ISS plants are beginning to produce different levels of organic compounds, known as polyphenols, or showing increased tolerance to downy mildew, a common pest that attacks vine leaves. Tests will continue for years, including DNA sequencing, searches for epigenetic modifications, and crucial analyses of the plants’ offspring, which will take at least 3-4 years. 

It will be a long time before the researchers know if their investment has paid off. Yet we don’t need to send vines to space to jump-start evolution in this way. Today’s popularity of space-induced mutation breeding is a new chapter in the peculiar history of mutagenesis, which is the process of inducing potentially beneficial crop mutations by blasting them with X-rays, gamma rays, ion beams, or electrons, along with dosing them with chemicals. 

In the nearly 100 years since the first experiments zapping seeds with X-rays to see if mutations occurred, mutagenesis has produced a peculiar cornucopia of new crops, as diverse as the popular red grapefruit Rio Red, the most popular rice grown in California, and a type of high-yielding barley beloved of certain whiskey makers.

For a time mutation-breeding appeared to hold the secret to the new and better crops of the future, but the advent of transgenic—so-called GMO—technologies in the 1970s quickly overshadowed these achievements, allowing scientists to target and replace specific genes, and so engineer bigger, more resilient crops that were planted in huge numbers, today accounting for—as an example—92 percent of corn planted in the United States. 

But mutagenesis has continued worldwide, especially in developing countries, where building transgenic labs is prohibitively expensive—or in countries where commercial GMO planting is banned. In fields around the world, from Bangladesh to New Zealand, dosing seeds with radiation still offers a low-cost way to produce crops with beneficial new mutations. More than 3,000 such mutation-bred plants are now registered in a database compiled by a United Nations joint venture between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While public fears around GMO “Frankenfoods” mean they remain politically controversial and tightly regulated in much of the EU and Africa, proponents of mutagenesis like to say that radiation is simply inducing the mutations that occur more slowly in nature. “Mutation itself is the basis of evolution,” says Shoba Sivasankar, head of plant breeding and genetics at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre. 

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre is launching a new project at the start of 2022 that will analyze the effects, at a genetic level, of space-induced mutation breeding and compare them with other mutant varieties bred on Earth. It will aim to identify the nature of the genetic changes that will be brought about by cosmic rays, explains Sivasankar. “It needs to be thoroughly investigated, but it does appear that these mutations have more of a coverage of the genome,” she says. 

All mutagenic processes are inherently random, creating scattershot genetic changes, leaving researchers to grow the plants and select for interesting traits, once they can be observed. But with gamma radiation, even with optimum doses, many of the seeds or tissues never make it to this stage, instead ending up dead, never revealing their secrets, Sivasankar adds. By contrast, cosmic rays are more forgiving, creating a broad spread of mutations across the genome without frying it, explains Liu: “In space, the radiation intensity is considerably lower, but the linear energy transmission of the particles and overall biological effect is higher and there is a much lower rate of damage to the seeds compared to those irradiated in labs.” 

When the challenge at hand is climate change, this genome coverage takes on new importance. There is no single gene for climate resilience, Sivasankar explains, or even any of the component parts of drought tolerance, submergence tolerance, or heat tolerance, which are each “very, very complex traits,” governed by multiple genes. “You cannot immediately [turn on] drought tolerance using a transgenic technology or by gene editing. You have to have a genome-wide change at precise positions in the chromosomes.”

“Cosmic rays come in flows, not regularly evenly distributed. They’re like rains, you know?

Sivasankar calls it “a significant advantage” that space mutagenesis preserves more mutations than traditional irradiation—as with the CANES experiment which lost only 24 out of 149, despite the four-month delay in returning to Earth. Surveying China’s three decades of experiments, we actually see a higher frequency of useful mutations from space mutagenesis than from conventional gamma rays, according to Liu. “There have been thousands of published papers released by Chinese scientists showing that in the environment of space, through the exposure to microgravity and cosmic radiation [you can] induce mutations in the DNA of seeds with the aim to find desirable traits such as higher yield, resistance to drought, high temperature, frost, salinity, or disease. These improved traits contribute to resilience to climate challenges,” Liu says. 

But with China the only country to have developed a space mutation breeding program, there’s still a lot more to independently verify. To fully understand how to fine-tune space breeding for crop development, scientists will have to pick apart the variables in play, explains Ranjith Pathirana, a research fellow for Plant & Food Research Australia, who has been working with mutagenic techniques for four decades. They’ll need to delineate those seeds kept in open or sealed containers; the time spent in space; and distance from Earth traveled (to the stratosphere in high-altitude balloons, Earth orbit in rockets, or, as China recently boasted, the first missions in deep space). Perhaps most important, in terrestrial mutagenesis the radiation dose can be tightly controlled. But space offers no such guarantees. “Cosmic rays come in flows, not regularly evenly distributed,” says Pathirana. “They’re like rains, you know? When a supernova explodes it comes like a beam, and then stops. So, it’s very difficult to repeat any experiment that one has done with one satellite, using another satellite.”

Will space breeding ever add up? 

Above all, cost will decide. And even with the tumbling price of spaceflight, Liu says it will never compete on price alone with terrestrial interventions. So why would states and private backers pursue it? 

Western government agencies and research institutions say they are chiefly looking to expand scientific knowledge, especially to see how the additional stresses, such as microgravity, affect plants. NASA’s space breeding research—which also includes experiments on dwarf tomato plants—is more of the fundamental kind, not aiming for planting anytime soon on Earth. “Understanding how plants respond to stress, in general, is really very relevant for us and for agriculture,” says Gioia Massa, NASA project and plant scientist at Kennedy Space Center. “Prime farmland with no stress is very hard to find right now.” 

“What we’re learning with our spaceflight research is kind of a unique stress, but we find that there are a lot of parallels with the genes that are turned on and off, on plants on the ISS, to plants that are dealing with other stresses on Earth,” explains Massa. “It’s all helping us to unlock what’s going on in plants. It’s another tool on your laboratory bench to really study how plants respond to their environment, and that is helping us to develop better plants in the future.”

Helen Anne Curry, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, suggests a different lens on the question. “I think you can look to the history of atomic energy,” says Curry, who authored a book on mutation breeding’s origins, Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America. Mutation breeding in the United States—especially using radiation from man-made radioisotopes—really ticked up in the late 1940s and carried on to about 1960, with the Atomic Energy Commission promoting it as a dividend of the nation’s investment in atomic energy for ordinary Americans. “Weapons didn’t seem to be bringing much immediate good to people. Power was still distant on the horizon. But look: There are peach breeders and peanut breeders and maize geneticists who are using radiation facilities developed and funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to try and advance agricultural aims.”

Whatever genuine scientific potential we can find in space breeding, it’s clear that the impetus is often coming from state and commercial interests far removed from the farmer’s field. But, if it works for anything, it might have a role to play in the fairly unique industry and crop at hand: wine. 

Humanity’s oldest biotech

Nicolas Gaume, CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited, insists the wine mission is for real, rooted in both the hard facts of the crisis now unfolding and the developing needs of a global wine industry worth more than $300 billion in 2020. 

“There’s a sizable market of vine plants,” says Gaume, whose commercial partner Mercier, one of the world’s biggest grapevine nurseries, is now in possession of the other 150 vines that splashed down from the ISS.  Climate change has already altered the flavor of wine, France’s harvest season, and even pushed the climate so far northwards that in order to make Champagne as it was drunk in the 19th century, you’d have to grow your vines in England, which an increasing number are doing

In traditional heartlands like Bordeaux, warmer summers have resulted in more sugar-rich grapes, which ferment to produce higher alcohol content, rising to a level that could soon become a concern. “In the 70s, a regular château in Bordeaux was producing wine with 11 degrees [percent] of alcohol. Today it’s 13 to 14 degrees of alcohol. In 10-20-30 years—who knows—it might get to the point where there’s so much alcohol it’s no longer wine anymore. The value of these châteaux might be destroyed by the evolution of climate change. So they need to consider new options, and one of them is replanting new vine plants that are more resilient to climate change.”

For those with money sunk into vineyards, climate change is now becoming an existential threat to vines and assets: “You take a large wine château from the Bordeaux area, there are some that are very high-end luxury goods,” says Gaume. “French luxury group LVMH has purchased châteaux, Kering and other luxury groups have too. If you’re Château Latour or Château Cheval Blanc or Château d’Yquem you do wonder how you’re going to [continue to] grow wine.”     

Gaume, a serial entrepreneur, was drawn by the opportunities created by this coming together of need and funding, and how it might support the company Space Cargo Unlimited’s overall mission of “making things in space that have high value for Earth.” 

The goal of establishing scientific credibility was arguably not helped by the inclusion of a crate of $6,000-a-bottle Petrus 2000, which also orbited Earth for 14 months before returning home to be tasted in February by a panel of experts at the cost of the largest carbon footprint in the history of fine dining. The scarcely scientific conclusion—that the wine remained really delicious to drink with “softer tannins and fruits, along with the higher floral, smoke, and truffle aromatics” according to the Financial Times—has nothing much to say about the planetary challenges facing wine. But to pull money into research and development, “We also try to be creative and try to leverage any particular opportunities we may have to bootstrap, like any startup,” justifies Gaume. 

A photograph of a rare bottle of wine that traveled to the International Space Station.
A bottle of Petrus 2000 and the specialized canister it travels to space in. Space Cargo Unlimited

Gaume picks out three entangled reasons why it makes sense for space breeding to start with wine, at the frontline of the battle for agriculture’s response to climate change. “One, it’s super sensitive,” as we’ve seen in Bordeaux already this year. “Two, arguably wine is a successful agricultural segment and what that means is there is more money flowing into that sector. I mean, ISVV exists because there are some very successful wine producers that can fund research and get funding into agricultural research.” 

“The third thing is wine is a very interesting liquid itself,” says Guame. “Louis Pasteur discovered fundamental, modern, life-science discoveries—specifically bacteria, the existence of bacteria—after studying, for eight years, wine.”

This last point, although perhaps slightly portentous, brings us back to something key, that could be missed among the primitive images of Bordeaux’s smoking vineyards. Wine is “arguably the oldest biotechnological endeavor,” according to a paper from 2013, which charts the wild origins of Vitis vinifera to today’s experiments with recombinant DNA technologies and CRISPR. “I often have to remind people that the natural outcome of fermenting grapes is vinegar,” says Sakkie Pretorius, an internationally recognized pioneer of molecular microbiology in wine, and one of the paper’s authors. “That’s nature. So you need intervention. And that’s what winemakers do.”

Wine: from wilderness to space 

For some 7,000 years, humans have manipulated the evolution of wine by selecting vines propagated by various forms of breeding for chosen characteristics. Controlled fermentation, bottling, specialized yeasts, and bacteria are all brought to bear. 

For the future of the crop, cloning—by which new vines are grown from cuttings or mass cloning programs—remains the clearest risk factor for loss of resilience in the future. The Joint FAO/IAEA has another upcoming project that will use radiation to reinject much-needed genetic variation to vegetative crops like vines that have been pushed into an evolutionary bottleneck and now have among the narrowest genetic base. Both Sivasankar and Pathirana say wine is a good candidate crop for such mutagenesis, although only one grapevine mutant appears in the FAO/IAEA database so far.

The dangers have already been made clear by a plague that nearly wiped out European winemaking in the middle of the 19th century, when the aphid phylloxera, imported from the Americas, spread fast to cut French wine production by more than 70 percent. Even in fighting back phylloxera, Europeans did little to truly expand the resilience of their vines. Instead, they simply grafted their favored wine grape varieties onto roots from American vines, which had evolved resistance around the base of the plant where phylloxera typically attacked. Today almost all European wines are grown on American roots (and the roots themselves are not a particularly diverse bunch). 

An award of 320,000 francs (somewhere north of $1 million in today’s money) offered by the French government to the person that cured the phylloxera crisis was never claimed, because no one cured it, instead kicking the can down the road. 

These mixed-up, overlapping currents of money, tradition, odd hacks, temporary fixes, and looming catastrophes mean mutagenesis might yet have a useful role. The simple fact is that transgenic technology remains basically unusable in wine production, due to bans on its application in wine throughout Europe and many major wine-producing countries worldwide.

Among wine’s classification system, this has real meaning, allowing mutation-bred wines to be sold as consumers’ handful of preferred cultivars. “A small mutation and you can give it a clonal name but [still sell it as the samel] pinot noir, or sauvignon blanc or merlot as they have sent to space,” says Pathirana. “The European market is all for traditional varieties so mutagenesis is the way to go.” 

If the voguish appeal of space and the salesmanship of Gaume can bring funding to bear on re-expanding this genetic base, they’ll arguably be doing more to address the problems posed by climate change than by further can-kicking, such as simply moving vineyards north or building massive climatic control systems to heat and cool vines where they currently grow.  

Phylloxera has been on Pretorius’s mind since COVID-19 began. Somewhat of a maverick (having developed genetically modified yeast in the 1970s and only later realizing they would be controversial), Pretorius says scientific investigation can’t be held back by the fears that have limited transgenic technologies in agriculture. Genome sequencing faced the same doubts about usefulness and fears about potential misuse when it first became feasible, he says. But by the time the novel coronavirus appeared, we were glad to have it so readily at hand, to get the virus’ genome mapped almost immediately in the beginning of 2020, and to allow vaccine research to start apace. 

As the results of Space Cargo Unlimited’s space missions trickle out over the coming years, Pretorius says he’s hopeful that they, or other space breeding experiments, will turn up results. We could use all the input we can get for the challenges ahead, he says. “I think an experiment like this may seem pointless now, may seem like a stunt—who knows?” 

Still, he says, space missions could turn up useful insights for the fight for survival ahead. “You know, I have my doubts, but I would not rule it out,” Pretorius says.

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