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Move Over Matt Damon: Scientists Grow Ten Crops In Faux Martian Soil

A new experiment shows that with a little help, soil on Mars could readily support agriculture

Crops certainly can be grown in the popular Hollywood stand-in for Mars, the valley Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. (Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis)
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In The Martian, Matt Damon conquered the red planet using mad botany skills and a batch of soil made from human waste. New research from the Netherlands, however, indicates that future explorers might not have to go to such extremes to grow vegetables. The soil at certain places on Mars may be able to produce crops with only a few minor alterations.

According to a press release, a team at Wageningen University led by Wieger Wamelink grew ten different crops planted in soils provided by NASA. These soils were designed to simulate the surface of our moon and Mars—with the faux Mars dirt from volcanic soil in Hawaii and the lunar stand-in from the Arizona desert. Using these simulated celestial soils, the team successfully grew all ten crops, including tomatoes, arugula, peas, rye, radishes, garden cress, quinoa, chives, leaks and spinach. 

This latest work follows an earlier experiment from Wamelink that showed that 14 different crop species could germinate in these faux soils, Divya Avasthy reports for International Business Times. But for the recent experiment, Wamelink gave the plants a boost, adding grass clippings and manure to the trays of soil. The team also grew the plants in a glass house with controlled light, humidity and temperature conditions since the first crops on Mars and the moon will likely be grown in underground rooms.

“For now I do not believe in aboveground domes,” Wamelink tells Mars One. “There is no material thick and strong enough to build domes … that will allow visible light to pass and block all the cosmic radiation.”

While the plants grown in the faux lunar soil produced only half the biomass of control crops grown in potting soil, the simulated Martian soils grew about the same amount as terrestrial plants.

“That was a real surprise to us,” Wamelink says in the press release. “It shows that the Mars soil simulant has great potential when properly prepared and watered.”

But don’t get the salad tongs out just yet. While many of the crops grown look edible, they likely contain heavy metals, CNET reports. Lead, arsenic and mercury are present in these soils and on the Martian surface and could make the crops poisonous.

That’s why Wamelink’s next round of experiments, expected to begin in April, will focus on whether Martian tomatoes and other crops are safe to eat—a project partially backed by a crowdfunding campaign. This time around, the team will add potatoes and beans to the mix. And if the plants are edible, the researchers plan to host the first proto-Martian feast for some of the donors.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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