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Michael Lebert Prof. Dr Michael Lebert is a cell biologist at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and scientific director at the space research company Space Cargo Unlimited. With the WISE mission, he has sent wines and grape seedlings into space. Alexander Lupersböck talked to him about the results and learned that space research on plants has long since arrived in everyday life.

Why send vines into space? Aren't there other plants that are more important for nutrition that should be researched?

Michael Lebert Because wine is an incredibly resistant plant. I'm particularly interested in the fact that it's a woody plant. They have practically never been studied so far. The findings should then be transferred to other plants. It also plays a role that Space Cargo Unlimited is based in Bordeaux. And the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV) of the University of Bordeaux is our cooperation partner.

Please tell us something about the WISE mission.

Michael Lebert It involved sending 320 cuttings, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot, to the International Space Station (ISS) at an altitude of 400 kilometres for 312 days. In addition, twelve bottles of Château Petrus were on board for 438 days. The cuttings, i.e. sections of wood, were in a dormant state, as in winter, in a plastic box. So they did not grow, were left to themselves and were not cared for. The only special thing about them is that they were exposed to weightlessness and cosmic radiation. After their return, they were grafted onto rootstocks. We were surprised that almost all of them survived and grew immediately.

In the first year, the focus was on vegetative propagation. We did not know if the offspring would have the same characteristics as the mother plants. Now we know that they do. This year we have continued to propagate and have taken care to try out different conditions. Some of the plants are in Erlangen, some at the ISVV in Bordeaux, also in the field, because we want to see how they react to grape aphids.

Evolution can happen very quickly in space.


You noticed changes in the polyphenol content, growth rates and bacteria and fungi associated with the plants in these vines. How does this make them more resistant to the effects of climate change and parasite infestations?

Michael Lebert The first thing we looked at was: Have the properties changed in a stable way? The answer in the second year is: Yes! The differences in growth compared to the control group reappeared in the second year just as they did in the first year. We now have plants with increased resistance to downy mildew. This is something very special, as Merlot in particular does not have this resistance on its own. Especially in organic viticulture, Merlot is very difficult because of its susceptibility to downy mildew. In addition, we saw that a number of internal bacteria and also external fungi help very stabilising against downy mildew and other pests.

Are these resistances formed because of the weightlessness or as a reaction to the cosmic radiation?

Michael Lebert They are always there anyway. We assume that they are only formed to a greater extent due to the conditions in space, because the vine is under a lot of stress there. This is a typical stress reaction of the plant. We call this "self-directed evolution".


Please explain this term in more detail.

Michael Lebert Evolution usually means: Adaptation to new conditions. The more complicated the conditions are, the faster the adaptations occur. That means: if everything is stable and the same, then little adaptation happens because it is not necessary. This can also be seen in the history of evolution. There were phases when nothing happened for a long time, and then again a lot happened in short periods of time. In recent years, we have learned that such adaptations take place much faster than we had previously thought. We have discovered that there is something like epigenetics. That means: modifications of the genetic material ensure that characteristics can also be modified.

We send the plants into space because we want to use the conditions that prevail there to create a kind of malleability. This means that the plants suffer stress there that they have never had before in their developmental history. Different temperatures, humidity fluctuations, drought, they know all that from Earth. It is also possible that they have already been exposed to certain types of radiation here. But they definitely don't know weightlessness.

So we create an initial situation in space that allows evolution to take place relatively quickly. We don't know what comes out of it and how exactly the plant does it, we only see that it does it. We assume that it doesn't have any negative effects on the ability of the vines to grow, because that also happens all the time in the normal breeding process, only much more slowly. Now, on earth, we add specific stress factors, for example more salt, higher temperature, less water. We let the plant do its thing.


This has a big advantage over molecular biological methods: There, you can only change individual factors, but not all of them at the same time. But the plant reacts with its metabolic network. This means that when something changes, many other factors change at the same time. And we don't have the many restrictions that exist against genetically modified plants, especially in Europe.

What is striking is the fact that the plants that came from space have now already produced grapevines. That surprised me a lot, because that normally only happens in the sixth or seventh year. They already have real fruit, so there are the first grapes this year. You can see that they are really fighting for survival and not giving up.

The plants are doing their thing.

Are they going to make wine out of it right away?

Michael Lebert At the moment we are still thinking about whether it makes sense to make wine from the first grapes, because the characteristics of the vines will still change somewhat and this wine will not necessarily be representative. I would be very happy if we did a microvinification anyway, I'm curious.

In May 2021, Christies's in London auctioned one of the bottles of Château Petrus from ISS. The estimated value of 830,000 euros was supposed to go to space missions for agricultural research. Is that true?

Michael Lebert Yes, we fully benefit from that. The amount was divided between the ISVV and us. The other bottles will be used for analysis, because the initial hypothesis of the experiment was that the diffusion rate of oxygen is responsible for the ageing process in wine. To say the least: At the moment it doesn't quite look like it. But the analysis is still going on, you have to examine several bottles, because the variance among the different bottles is quite large.

Have you tasted the wine?

Michael Lebert No. This is the work of an organoleptic high office of pronounced specialists. Unfortunately, I was not invited to do so.

The ancestors of many cultivated plants in China were in space.

Will all plants, especially new varieties, be exposed to weightlessness in the future?

Michael Lebert That is already happening. The Chinese have been doing this for many years. Seeds of various crops have been sent to their space station and whole institutes have been set up to look at the properties of these seeds. They have found everything from increased vitamin content, nutrient content, carotene content and defensive substances. It seems that almost all crops that are offered in China are derived from these plants. That is a huge market. It gets really interesting when you have plants flowering on top, because the possibilities of changes are an order of magnitude higher.


What did the Mission WISE experiment cost?

Michael Lebert For our experiment with the cuttings, we spent around 600,000 euros on preparation and the space flight, which is not an extraordinary amount. This can result in sensible things that are useful to us on Earth. Whether the Webb telescope, which cost ten billion euros, will also produce such concretely applicable results, I'm a little sceptical about, as great as that is. Even if the descendants of such plants are somewhat more expensive, it has to be said: they already flower in the second year, which then also brings a lot. Calculated on a vineyard, these seedlings are certainly worth the higher costs.

There are more and more private space missions, does that mean more opportunities?

Michael Lebert Yes. It has to be said: we have huge problems, this is not only true for wine, but for all crops. We hope that with the wine model system we can discover general mechanisms for all crops and transfer them to other plants. Much more will happen, there are many experiments underway on different tracks of biotechnology. In the future, we will no longer rely so much on manned space stations, but on self-flying capsules that orbit the earth like satellites. Space research has arrived in plant breeding, not only in viticulture.

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