Potatoes on Mars

True to the sprit of humanity's early settlers, cultivating the land will probably be the best way to provide food for the Red Planet's early colonists. But just how possible is it to plant seeds from Earth and grow them as Martian crops? To figure this out, the International Potato Center (CIP) — yes, it's a real institution — launched an initiative last February called the Potatoes on Mars Project.


The effort is reminiscent of the scene from the movie "The Martian" in which Matt Damon's character plants potatoes to survive on Mars. Turns out, the sci-fi film may actually have been onto something. The CIP worked in tandem with NASA's Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) to discover if potatoes could be grown under Mars' atmospheric conditions.

A tuber was planted in a CubeSat-contained environment that was especially designed by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima. Soil taken from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru, described as the most Mars-like soil found on Earth, was placed inside a hermetically sealed container that was installed in the satellite. To simulate the radiation found on Mars' surface, the researchers used an LED. They built controls to alter the temperature to reflect Mars' day and night cycles, as well as for adjusting air pressure, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels.

Tough Tubers

Now, a month after the first tuber was planted, preliminary results have been positive. “It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” said CIP's potato breeder Walter Amoros.

However, the CIP's experiment does more than just let us know that the Earth's first Martian colonists may be snacking on potatoes when they reach the Red Planet in the next decade or so. It also helped us figure out if potatoes could survive in extreme conditions on Earth. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth,” says Chris McKay of NASA ARC in a press release.

By proving that potatoes can be cultivated under the harshest environments on Earth, the study could help the estimated one in nine people on the planet suffering from chronic undernourishment. That problem is likely to get worse considering modern stressors on our environment. “The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected, by climate change are working,” said Amoros.

All in all, potatoes may turn out to be a super food both in space and here on Earth.

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