Out of this world: Vines in space

By Simone Madden-Grey

17 Jul, 2023

To understand how plants function in, and adapt to, extreme conditions, scientists sent Vitis vinifera into outer space. Simone Madden-Grey investigates.

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Why wine in space?

High levels of radiation and microgravity define growing conditions in space. In this uniquely stressful environment plants undergo a range of molecular responses that can trigger changes in cell properties. Scientists are using these conditions to push grapevines to adapt in ways not seen on Earth, hoping that newly adapted vines can be returned to Earth for propagation. 

Additionally, this research is helping scientists better understand how plants adapt to disease pressure. For example, how they resist mildew. Wine Australia estimates that diseases such as botrytis, powdery mildew and downy mildew cost the industry more than $200 million each year. If the space research helps to unlock the vine’s ability to resist mildew, the financial benefits would be significant. Increased resistance to mildew would also lower chemical inputs needed to manage mildew and promote a more sustainable vineyard management practice. Such research is a rather unique addition to the toolbox from which to grow vines in the face of climate change.

Cabernet vinesCabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir vines were selected from a nursery in Ningxia, a wine-producing region where temperatures fall below 0°C.

Research on wine in space

In 2016, the Chinese Tiangong-2 mission explored the idea of subjecting grapevines to the harsh conditions of space. Vines were launched into space with the aim of triggering adaptations that could be used to grow vines with greater resistance to harsh climates. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir vines were selected from a nursery in Ningxia, an arid wine-producing region where temperatures fall well below 0°C in winter. The hypothesis was based on leveraging the extreme environment of low Earth orbit (LEO) to trigger survival mechanisms in grapevines not yet seen on Earth. Official responses indicate the mission was successful and the vines were subsequently propagated for use on Earth.

The vines used in the Tiangong-2 mission were sourced from Mercier Groupe, a French company that’s also involved in the Mission WISE program. Mission WISE, the first privately funded wine research program conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), was realised with a payload of 12 bottles of Bordeaux red in November 2019. A later delivery of 320 Bordeaux-sourced grapevines (an even split between cabernet sauvignon and merlot) to the ISS was completed in March 2020. 

The program was developed by Bordeaux-based company Space Cargo Unlimited (SCU). Speaking to Jane Anson during an episode of the The Wine Conversation podcast, SCU co-founder and CEO Nicolas Gaume said bringing together stakeholders from the European Space Agency, the French National Centre for Space Studies and US space agency NASA for Mission WISE was a lengthy process. Several concerns needed to be addressed before alcohol, which had previously been banned on the ISS, could be permitted onboard. According to Gaume, an important step in overcoming safety concerns and addressing cultural sensitivities about having alcohol aboard the ISS was to highlight the rigorous research protocols in place alongside potential environmental, research and commercial outcomes.

A bucket of shiraz grapesOver the next two years, plans include broadening the number of stressors tested under the Mission WISE project.

Vines in space

The application of research from this program benefits not only viticulture but wider agricultural practices, including pest and disease management and plant survival in extreme climate conditions. After 321 days, the vines on the ISS returned to Earth and an initial evaluation took place at the Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) in Bordeaux. Under the direction of Dr Michael Lebert of Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Dr Stephanie Cluzet at the University of Bordeaux, scientists identified a number of positive characteristics in the vines returned from space, including accelerated growth, increased drought tolerance and improved disease resistance.

“Many of these canes grew fast and also developed flowers and fruit in the second year, which is about three years earlier than normal, but most important is the kind of wine that can be produced,” Lebert said in April 2023 over Zoom. A micro-harvest from some of the vines currently growing in greenhouse conditions is scheduled this year, with sensory and chemical composition evaluations to follow.

The improved resistance to downy mildew observed in the ISS vines is particularly important for downy mildew-prone merlot. This and other characteristics have remained stable through vine propagation. “We were very happy to see the same cuttings have the same resistance again in the second year. We hope to validate this in the field in the third year,” says Lebert. After being grafted earlier in 2023, a selection of the ISS vines will be planted in Bordeaux during the Northern Hemisphere summer, in order to assess resistance to vineyard pests and survival under normal weather conditions. 

Over the next two years, plans include broadening the number of stressors tested under the Mission WISE project. “We plan to apply drought, temperature, chemicals, and salt, all the things you would expect with climate change in the conditions of space, to drive the direction these evolutionary tendencies adapt,” says Lebert. 

Glass bottling lineTo address the complexities of glass bottles and corks in space, each bottle was transported in a specially crafted steel cannister. 

Wine in space

When Mission WISE delivered 12 bottles of red wine to the ISS, the producers’ identity – Château Pétrus – was kept secret until their return to Earth. Gaume is keen to maintain focus on the research goals of the mission, highlighting that Château Pétrus was not involved in the provision of the wine, instead the 12 bottles of 2000 Pomerol were sourced from the market.

In order to address the complexities of glass bottles and corks in space, each bottle was transported in a specially crafted steel cannister. Part of the Mission WISE project involved analysing how wine aged in a LEO environment, and to do this numerous structural challenges were overcome to ensure the wine remained in the bottle, under cork and in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Transportation to the ISS was via a pressurised section of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which would also deliver the vines to the ISS in a later payload.

After 438 days orbiting Earth, the wine was returned and a sensory evaluation took place where differences in colour, aromatics and taste were noted. “In the chemical analysis of these particular wines we saw significant changes in the thiols,” says Lebert, noting they were lower in the wines returned from the ISS. In red wine, thiols are associated with red fruit character. In a comparative tasting with 12 bottles of the same wine that had remained on Earth, Jane Anson described the wines from the ISS as a little more evolved, with increased floral character.

The capacity to use space as a research environment to advance the understanding of plants for the benefit of viticulture and broader agricultural practices has developed rapidly. Tasting of wines produced from the ISS vines will no doubt elicit further revelations.

This article appears in issue #71 of Halliday magazineBecome a member to receive the print publication as well as digital access.

Image credit: Wine Australia.