By Brian Owens
Mike Dixon wants to send plants to Mars. Growing crops in space is the best way to provide proper nutrition to the crew on a long-duration mission, this University of Guelph researcher believes—but because there’s no manned mission to Mars scheduled at the moment, it’s hard to get funding for this type of research.
In the meantime, he and a growing number of other botanists are studying a plant where there’s plenty of funding right now, in Canada anyway: cannabis.
“We're going to have to take plants [to space],” said Dixon, director of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, a low-slung, bunker-like building focused on developing plant-based life support systems for space travel. (He was talking about food crops, like lettuce and tomatoes.) “We don't have the mass and energy budget to carry enough food to keep a crew going indefinitely. You have to have some bioregenerative food production system. So we're not leaving the planet without them.”
The problem is, designing, building and perfecting those systems is expensive. So Dixon also works with Earth-based horticultural industries, focused mostly on food crops and ornamental plants, that are interested in solutions to some of the same problems that long-haul astronauts will face: how to indefinitely recycle water and nutrients, for example, or how to avoid using toxic chemicals as disinfectants.
“We'll develop the technologies needed for space and spin them off into terrestrial industries,” he said. That includes the burgeoning cannabis industry, which is looking for ways to produce consistent products and gain acceptance from the medical community.
Producers of Canada's newest cash crop are keen to support much-needed research into cannabis and what it can do—and to find ways of making it better. These producers bring with them huge amounts of funding. “No technology is too expensive to grow cannabis,” said Dixon, who was standing beside a gleaming row of hyperbaric chambers, the glow of multicoloured LED lights leaking through their viewing ports.
The biggest issue for the medicinal marijuana industry is getting its plants to consistently produce the right amounts of medically active chemicals. Dixon said that the technology exists now, just down the hall from his office. In a variety of sealed chambers, ranging from a trashcan-sized stainless steel cylinder to a white box the size of a restaurant's walk-in freezer, Dixon can manipulate the six major environmental factors that influence plant growth—light, water, carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity and nutrients—to control a plant's growth and chemical make-up, creating what he calls “environmentally modified organisms.”
By adopting Dixon's space tech, medical cannabis companies would be able to ensure their plants always produce whatever exact amounts of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids they want, in the same way that astronauts will dial up the precise environmental parameters to reliably produce delicious and nutritious tomatoes.
“Standardizing the product will help it achieve the status of a conventional pharmaceutical commodity that a doctor can rely on and prescribe,” said Dixon.
That's what Dixon's collaborators at ABcann, a medical cannabis producer in Napanee, Ontario, are aiming to do, he said—to standardize the product and engage with the medical community to “raise the status of cannabis to its rightful place in medical science.”
The relationship between botanists and cannabis growers can be fraught, as the majority of growers have little experience with the stringent standards of academic research. “Before now, cannabis has necessarily been in the back room,” said Dixon. “It's never been subjected to controlled scientific experiments,” particularly horticultural ones.
As a result, it can be hard for some growers to let go of their own anecdotal experiences and embrace the scientific method. But a generation of young botanists is eager to explore this new frontier and is bring scientific rigour to the field. “I always knew I wanted to do research with plants,” said Katya Boudko, a botanist who is now head of research and development at Tweed, a medicinal cannabis producer in Smiths Falls, Ontario. “And who wouldn't want to work in such a novel industry?”
Boudko said there’s plenty of excitement among young botanists about the opportunities to work with a plant that hasn't been well-studied before now. “It's one of the attractions, being in the first wave,” she said. “It's something that's reflected in the number of [job] applications we get.”
Dixon said that with recent and upcoming changes in law, Canada has an opportunity to be at the forefront of an exciting field of botany. “We can take a leadership role here,” he said.