Barley to Space Station 'just the beginning' in Budweiser's plans for beer on Mars

Experiment on ISS will study germination in low gravity

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - An experiment by Budweiser set to lift off this week for the International Space Station aims to help future farmers on Mars to grow barley, a nutrient-rich crop, which also happens to be the key ingredient for brewing beer.

Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of the American beer giant, is sending the cereal grain seeds to spend about 30 days onboard the International Space Station National Lab, where the barley will undergo the process of sprouting, or germination.

SpaceX will launch its Dragon cargo spacecraft  from Cape Canaveral no earlier than Wednesday carrying 4,800 pounds of research, supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. Anheuser-Busch partnered with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, the nonprofit in charge of finding and brokering experiments to the orbiting laboratory, to send its payload into space.

Dr. Gary Hanning, director of global barley research at Anheuser-Busch, said if the seeds germinate in space, they will grow quickly to about 6 inches tall.

At the Anheuser-Busch lab, Hanning said researchers cultivate new barley varieties, which can take up to 12 years to develop and then get released in the U.S. and internationally. The researchers focus on developing stronger strains that aren't relent on fertilizers of bug repellents to keep the malt process down.

Barley is a hearty crop, that can grow in dry or moist environments, which makes it a good candidate for extreme environments, like Mars. The grain has been used for thousands of years to make food for humans and feed for animals and its adaptability is what made it the primary grain in brewing for at least 5,000 years, writes Ashley McFarland with the Michigan State University Extension office.

“We grow winter barley that will tolerate minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and we grow it in places like India, with above 100 degree temperatures,” Hanning said.

The question is how the barley will respond to microgravity given the same amounts of water and nutrients they would receive on Earth. The experiment will help scientists develop barley better suited for microgravity and here on Earth which will benefit farmers and eventually help future Martians maintain a "good healthy lifestyle," Hanning said.

Earlier this year, at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Budweiser announced its goal to be the first beer on Mars.

"This is just the beginning of that very long work," Hanning said. "Us learning how to grow barely in space and how do we have an agricultural situation in those colonies (on Mars)."

Plant growth research on the International Space Station is nothing new. For several years, astronauts on the Space Station have been growing edible varieties of lettuce in a NASA experiment known as Veggie. Researchers at the University of Florida have sent up several rounds of studies through CASIS to the orbiting lab on how plant roots adapt to low gravity.

The germinated barley seeds will return to Earth on the next cargo ship return trip to be analyzed in Budweiser’s labs.

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