Potatoes can be grown even in the extreme environment of Mars, according to a new study that has implications for future manned missions to the red planet as well as helping people survive in harsh climates on Earth.
The International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru launched a series of experiments to discover if potatoes can grow under Mars atmospheric conditions and thereby prove they are also able to grow in extreme climates on Earth.
The Phase Two effort of CIP’s proof of concept experiment to grow potatoes in simulated Martian conditions began in February last year when a tuber was planted in a specially constructed CubeSat by researchers from University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Peru. The Potatoes on Mars project was conceived by CIP to both understand how potatoes might grow in Mars conditions and also see how they survive in the extreme conditions similar to what parts of the world already suffering from climate change and weather shocks are already experiencing.
“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” said Julio Valdivia-Silva, research associate at the SETI Institute, a US based research organisation. “If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars,” said Valdivia-Silva.
“We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive,” he said. The CubeSat houses a container holding soil and the tuber. Inside this hermetically sealed environment the CubeSat delivers nutrient rich water, controls the temperature for Mars day and night conditions and mimics Mars air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Sensors constantly monitor these conditions and live streaming cameras record the soil in anticipation of the potato sprouting. One advantage potato great genetic capacity for adaptation to extreme environments, researchers said. CIP has tapped into that capacity by breeding potato clones that tolerate conditions such as soil salinity and drought, in order to help smallholder farmers grow food in marginal areas that could grow harsher under climate change. “This research could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth,” said Chris McKay from NASA.
From the initial experiment, CIP scientists concluded that future Mars missions that hope to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to allow it to tuberize.
“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 potato breeder Walter Amoros. The experiments have already provided good news about potato’s potential for helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth, he said.