Addressing climate change: “Wine and vine is like the canary in the coalmine”

Jacqui Goddard writes on The Times website about an interesting experiment that saw 12 bottles of red wine and 320 stems of merlot and cabernet sauvignon vines spend over a year on the International Space Station for a study that aims to adapt Earth’s agriculture to the challenges of climate change.


Wine aged in space tackles the gravity of climate change

A case of wine and segments of grapevines have been flown millions of miles in space for a study that aims to adapt Earth’s agriculture to the challenges of climate change.

The 12 bottles of red and 320 stems of merlot and cabernet sauvignon vines are part of a research programme that will help find answers to the question: “How will we grow quality food in tomorrow’s harsher Earth conditions?”

“Wine and vine is like the canary in the coalmine, one of the most sensitive agricultural products, much more sensitive to climate change,” Nicolas Gaume, co-founder and chief executive of Space Cargo Unlimited, said.

The Luxembourg-based company’s Mission Wise programme will study the changes in vines and the biological components of the wine when they are not subject to gravity.

The samples are en route to a laboratory in Bordeaux, France after splashing down off the coast of Florida last week in a SpaceX cargo capsule.

“We believe that this evaluation in space will give more strength to the plants — that they will be more resilient, more adaptive. We will replant them on Earth, grow them and measure how effective they are in reacting to stressors . . . If you can make it happen in a vine, you can make it happen to many other agricultural products,” Mr Gaume said.

Climate change is behind challenges for agriculture, such as increased salt levels in the soil that reduce yield.

A separate study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the US, predicts that if global temperatures rise by 2C viable wine-growing regions will shrink by 56 per cent globally with Italy, Spain and Australia suffering the largest losses.

The space-flown vines will be compared with specimens that stayed on Earth to identify any mutations that occurred during their period in microgravity and assess their potential.

“If you look at life over the last four billion years, we’ve had major evolution — for example temperatures going from the Ice Age to tropical climates, species dying and new species brought to life — and all those have had one constant, which is gravity. When you remove that constant, life changes,” Mr Gaume said.

The research is similar to Nasa’s Twins Study, launched in 2015, which compared the physical, molecular and cognitive profile of Scott Kelly, an astronaut who spent a year in space, with his identical Earth-bound twin Mark.

The wine was sent to the   in November 2019 in bottles that remained firmly off-limits to the crew. Mr Gaume will join renowned wine experts in sampling the bottles next month. He said wine was sent to space because it is simpler to study than the human body but is a liquid containing yeast and bacteria.

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