Is space beer risky?

freeflyer_nasaspacebeerbarleySapporo is selling 250 6-packs of their ultra limited edition Space Beer through a lottery system for 10,000 yen each – but only to people who live in Japan. The proceeds will go to Okayama University for science education. The malting barley used in this beer is of the Haruna Nijo variety, developed by Sapporo. This barley is the 4th generation produced from barley that spent 5 months aboard the International Space Station in the Zvezda Service Module. The hops from Furano, Hokkaido were also from seeds that spent time in space, although I wasn’t able to find out how long they spent up there. This all sounds pretty cool, a simple feel good pro-space research event.

Sure, it’s cool, and I wouldn’t mind having a taste, but my first thought after reading Barley + Space = Space Beer! on Wired was: were there any mutations in the barley or hops that were caused by the exposure to gamma rays, etc while in space? Should the lucky few who get to try it be worried about unintended changes in the barley and hops from gamma rays and other mutagens in space?

Multiple groups in China have been purposefully using the mutagenizing effects of space as a tool to develop new traits in crops including alfalfa and rice. Unfortunately, these researchers have been publishing in Chinese journals and other journals that I don’t have access to. A 2009 paper in Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis called Spaceflight induces both transient and heritable alterations in DNA methylation and gene expression in rice (Oryza sativa L.) has some key ideas in the abstract that can help us consider the potential risks of “space barley” and other “space crops”.

Spaceflight represents a complex environmental condition in which several interacting factors such as cosmic radiation, microgravity and space magnetic fields are involved, which may provoke stress responses and jeopardize genome integrity. … We report here that extensive alteration in both DNA methylation and gene expression occurred in rice plants subjected to a spaceflight … [which] are heritable to progenies at variable frequencies.

tmntThe rice that had spent time in space had epigenetic changes that were passed on to the next generation. The changes didn’t have any obvious phenotypes, so it’s possible that similar changes exist in the decedents of space barley that haven’t been detected. Are these changes dangerous? Probably not, but it is possible. All mutagens (and even just breeding) can cause unintended changes, but testing is not required for plants resulting from either. Space induced mutations will likely escape regulatory scrutiny as well.

The 2004 book Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects lists some classic examples of breeding resulting in unintended effects in Chapter 3: Unintended Effects from Breeding, including increases of naturally occurring toxins that are harmful to humans. These unintended consequences are often due to selecting for one trait that inadvertently selects for a different trait that may or may not be related to the first trait. Interestingly, these authors of this book were not able to find any examples of unintended consequences due to mutagenesis. This is likely a result of the same process that removes any unintended changes from plants with genetically engineered traits – lots of breeding. Seems a bit paradoxical, but this sort of breeding isn’t done with the goal of developing new traits. Instead, the goal of post mutageneis or post genetic engineering breeding is to stabilize the trait of interest in a line that already has other desired traits. Other research, notably the 2008 Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion, showed that both mutagenesis and genetic engineering can cause unintended changes in gene expression. However, obvious phenotypes may be rare.

In the case of space barley, four generations may have been long enough to revert any mutations that had occurred, especially if most changes are epigenetic as suggested by Spaceflight induces both transient and heritable alterations in DNA methylation and gene expression in rice (Oryza sativa L.). The space hops didn’t have any additional generations, so there is a greater likelihood that any mutations that occurred were still present in the hops that were used to produce the space beer. Does this make space beer more dangerous than non-space beer? Maybe, maybe not. It might be a good idea to at least consider potential changes induced by space, just as we should be considering potential unintended effects from breeding, mutagenesis, and genetic engineering. We might employ a flow chart, such as this one from Chapter 7: Framework, Findings, and Recommendations in Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. It’s time to stop treating crops resulting from non biotech modifications as inherently safe, and start comparing the newly modified varieties to their parental varieties. Then, we’ll be sure that space beer, space rice, and a host of up-and-coming products are safe for us to eat and drink.



  1. The Chinese have a curious fascination with “Space Potatoes”, which are blue potatoes that have been sent up in space. Although probably more symbolic than anything, it makes me wonder what cultural differences they have that draw them to such novelties, and what it might mean for acceptance of other novelties, like GE.
    What I also like about this is that the barley was bred, and Sapporo obviously had to pay money to a space program to get a spot in their costly payload. So additional money to space science to advertise for plant genetics and enhance interest in a new variety. What’s not to like about that?
    Oh yeah, mutations. 🙂 It is surprising how easily the issue of mutagenesis gets glossed over as OK and genetic engineering is the dangerous one to look out for, when we know that the changes brought about by mutagenesis have a much higher risk of unintended consequences. I was just talking to someone on the phone today and they were a bit surprised that mutagenesis is used to generate new traits for breeding.

  2. So assuming epigenetic changes will eventually revert to their wild type state once returned to earth, especially if the plants are being bred back to non-space treated varieties, it seems this is mostly an expensive, and awesome, way to do radiation mutagenesis (which has been around for decades without public relations problems).
    Karl, I’d be fascinated to learn more about Chinese Space Potatoes (a name like that deserves to be capitalized), but I don’t think it’s something present in Chinese culture and missing in our own. It’s a natural human response to be fascinated with the strange and exotic.* In their case, I imagine national pride also plays a significant role. (I’m assuming the space potatoes are a product of China’s own space program). It’s only when that fascination with the new and different is masked by a induced hatred which seems to be present in European culture, and to a lesser extent in our own.
    *Hand someone a fruit they’ve never seen before in their lives, and the vast majority will be more interested in what it tastes like than fearing that it might be dangerous.

  3. James, I love trying exotic fruits and veggies!
    I had the honor of tasting fresh durian this week. I’m glad I did it, and I recommend the experience, but it’s not something I’ll go for again. It looked like a dead animal once it was opened up, and smelled worse. The taste was something like papayas mashed up with rotten onions, and the texture was that of partially cooked eggs.
    The book Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects that I found for this post did a good job, I think, of showing that we need to look at all novel traits, not just those from biotech. The whole mutageneis with no regulation thing just seems weird to me.

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