The Sciences

From Space Plants to Space Beer! WOOHOO!

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffDec 4, 2008 8:11 PM


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There's a saying among marine biologists I know: "Never study anything you can't eat." It's a good rule of thumb, and one that leads to lobster and mussel dinners at New England marine labs after test subjects have mysterious accidents involving boiling water and drawn butter. It's also clearly a rule obeyed by at least some of the scientists engaged in figuring out how best to conduct space-based agriculture (astroculture?). If we're going to explore the stars, after all, we're going to need a renewable food supply to cross vast interstellar distances. Establishing whether crops can survive in space is crucial. In 2006, Japanese scientists from Okayama University teamed up with Sapporo Breweries to conduct several experiements on barley, the raw material for many beers. This was not a study entirely focused on working out how to make a Cold One in outer space: Barley handles stress from lack of water or reduced oxygen better than wheat or rice, so it's actually a useful study organism for astroculture in general. They tested whether barley grown in space would show any negative effects compared to barley grown on the ground (it didn't) and they put some of it in storage for six months, to see how it would fare. Like the dwarf wheat American scientists grew in space in 2002, the barley showed almost no ill effects from growing in microgravity or radiation. The scientists found only one enzyme increased from slight oxygen deprivation, but the plants did well. The stored barley was returned to Earth and the scientists planted it and managed to grow healthy plants. They grew another generation from those plants, and produced 100 pounds of barley, which they plan on harvesting this weekend. The plucked barley will be given to the brewer Sapporo, who will brew it into 100 bottles of space beer. Or, as the marine biologists might say, the barley may have a terrible fermentation accident, after which the alcoholic byproduct might fall into bottles. Sapporo doesn't plan to sell the beer, nor do they know exactly how they're going to distribute it. Perhaps they could send a sample bottle or two to SciNoFi HQ?

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