The 12 bottles of red are aboard SpaceX’s Dragon 2 spacecraft, which is due to undock from the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (January 12), splashing down off the coast of Florida 12 hours later.
Also on the uncrewed spacecraft are 320 vine scions, which have been circling the earth for 10 months aboard the ISS.
The bottles of Bordeaux and scions of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (160 each) have quite a journey ahead of them. After the undocking, re-entry and splashdown, the capsule will be scooped up by boat and the scientific samples – which also include heart muscles, organ buds, optical fibres created in space, and live mice – will be loaded on to one of two waiting helicopters, the most time-critical samples going first.
The helicopters will land the experiments at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, previously used for space shuttle returns. The cargo will then be trucked to the Space Station Processing Facility for scientists to check, secure some initial results before gravity has too much of an influence, and prepare the packages for their onward journey to France.
The samples should be handed over to “the payload team” on January 14, approximately 51 hours after splashdown. The wines and canes will then take different routes to the ISVV (Institut Superieur de la Science et du Vin) in Bordeaux.
The wine bottles, housed in special metal canisters, are part of a research project called Commubios. They will be transported by road to NanoRacks in Houston for checking before flying from Houston to Bordeaux.
The 40mm-long scions, part of a research project called CANES, will be handed over to the European Space Agency representatives in charge of the logistics and will undergo a shipment like other European experiments that returned from this mission.
Both payloads should be in Bordeaux by the end of this month (January).
The ISVV will analyse the differences between returning canes and similar specimens that stayed on Earth. Both sets of pruning canes, with dormant buds, are being stored at similar humidity levels (70-80%) and low temperature (0.5-8°C) in the dark. The aim is to give insights into the future of agriculture by taking advantage of the accelerated development of plants in a stressful, strange environment with little or no gravity, and higher radiation exposure.
Mobilising their defences when threatened by changes in their environment, plants undergo severe biological changes.
At ISVV, teams of researchers will observe the different batches and document any visible change, any damage, and determine the health status of the scions. They will also analyse some for substances such as polyphenols and terpenoids, which are important for wine taste and disease resistance, and grow the rest to produce enough material for further investigation.
As these vines grow, researchers will:
- Observe the plant development and especially downy mildew tolerance;
- Identify changes in the plants’ DNA;
- See how the space flight impacted the epigenetic of the plant and how the plant reacted to such strong stress.
What’s unusual about this project is that the products have returned to Earth to help with problems here. Most of the experiments on plants that take place in the ISS are aimed at growing food there to feed the crew and aid future space exploration. But SCU’s focus is on leveraging the absence of gravity to find new ways of growing plants on Earth and to scale up to feed more people on the planet.
Dr Michael Lebert, an expert in cell biology and chief scientist officer of SCU, explained: “Organisms adapt to changing environments using their amazing flexibility to remodel themselves by a process called evolution. The interactions between organisms and the environment are the basis of evolution because these determine the general developmental tendencies. Changing environments can cause strong selective pressure, leading to genetic and phenotypic shifts for adaptations. Stress plays a significant role in facilitating adaptation by allowing better modifications, maintenance, and functioning of organismal systems to everchanging environments. Extreme environmental stress can cause extinction but may also lead to rapid evolutionary changes and the origin of new species adapting to new environments.”
SCU is focusing on vines and wines as a proxy for agricultural evolution at large because of the extended knowledge developed around wine since antiquity and the role it played in previous scientific breakthroughs, such as Louis Pasteur discovering the existence of bacteria.
CANES is the third of six wine-related experiments in the ‘Mission WISE’ (Vitis Vinum in Spatium Experimentia) programme, a partnership between SCU, the CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Scientifiques, Toulouse), ISVV, and ESA (European Space Agency).
The first involved red wine from an unnamed château (to prevent accusations that the experiment is a marketing ploy). Once the bottles are taken out of their protective metal containers they will be compared with 12 bottles from the same batch that were stored in France at the same temperature (18°C).
A private, organoleptic wine tasting will take place in Bordeaux in late February, with oenologist and agronomist Franck Dubourdieu.
The research team (above) expects space-based radiation and microgravity to influence the chemical reactions in the bottles and the taste of the wine, and will be looking to see how it affects health-relevant components such as polyphenols. The researchers told Canopy their work will track “polyphenol evolutions, epigenetic changes, colloid changes”.
This initial research will also drive other research and may help to explain how red wine ages and what makes the taste of wine.
The second of the six space experiments, in December 2019, involved giving vine calluses several minutes of weightlessness in suborbital space to test the research methodology.
Two further experiments, including one related to ferments, are scheduled to take place this year and the sixth experiment is scheduled for 2022.
Research teamThe research teams are supervised by:
- Philippe Darriet, director of the Oenology Research Unit at ISVVV (Institut Supérieur de la Vigne et du Vin) and PD;
- Stephanie Cluzet, Research Directeur – PhD in Science Bordeaux University – Oenology;
- Dr Michael Lebert, Chief Scientist Officer, Space Cargo and Department of Cell Biology, FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg University (Germany).