In March of last year, a group of Dutch scientists announced that they had grown 10 different plant species—including tomatoes, peas, rye, garden rocket, radish and garden cress—in dirt engineered to mimic the harsh, arid soil of Mars.
A new study suggests that potatoes may be able to survive on the Red Planet, too. As Katherine Ellen Foley reports for Quartz, researchers at the International Potato Center (known as CIP, its Spanish acronym) were able to sprout a crop of spuds in Mars-like soils.
Scientists working on the aptly-named "Potatoes on Mars" project wanted “to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive,” researcher Julio Valdivia-Silva says in a statement. But the scientists faced a steep challenge. Conditions on Mars are not hospitable to biological life. The planet’s soils are salty, thin, and lacking in chemicals like nitrogen, which helps plants grow. Its atmosphere contains little oxygen—also important to plant growth—and its average temperature hovers at a frigid -80 degrees Fahrenheit.
To recreate these harsh conditions, researchers relied on soils from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Peru, which, like the soils on Mars, contains few life-sustaining compounds. They then placed the soil inside a CubeSat—a small, sealed satellite that can simulate the temperature, air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels on Mars—and sowed the dirt with potato seeds, Rob LeFebvre reports for Engadget.
Researchers took a number of steps to boost the potatoes’ chances of growing in such a harsh environment. They used tubers that had been bred to thrive in salty soils, and irrigated them with nutrient-rich water. As Rae Paoletta points out in Gizmodo, the soil was also enhanced with fertilizer—not unlike Matt Damon’s poopy potato crops in The Martian.
Sensors monitored the patch of land 24 hours a day. And one year after the project began, researchers saw spuds sprouting in the soil. Potato breeder Walter Amoros calls the results a “pleasant surprise,” according to the CIP statement.
CIP’s experiment could have significant implications for the future of space exploration. NASA is pushing forward with plans to send humans to Mars, and astronauts are going to need to eat while they’re there. But it’s important to note that the results of the experiment have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Growing the plants is just the first hurdle that scientists need to overcome when it comes to feeing astronauts on Mars. As Foley writes in Quartz, “figuring out how to bring the seeds, water, and plant nutrients to our neighboring planet is something else entirely.”
The results of the experiment may, in fact, be more significant to humans here on Earth. When CIP isn’t dabbling in extraterrestrial farming, the organization uses roots and tubers to develop sustainable solutions to poverty, hunger, and climate change across the globe. Climate change creates poor soil conditions, the CIP explains in a second statement, which can exacerbate poverty and malnutrition in already vulnerable areas. If potatoes can thrive in Mars-like conditions, researchers theorize, they can likely survive in soils that have been damaged by global warming. Or as Joel Ranck, CIP’s Head of Communications, puts it: “[I]f we can grow potatoes in extreme conditions like those on Mars, we can save lives on Earth.”
CIP will continue to monitor its little patch of tubers, and the patient souls among us can follow the potatoes’ (very, very slow) progression on a live stream.