by Callie

Special Spuds: Crops for Mars

In the movie, The Martian, it appears luck would be on the astronaut’s side that he has raw potatoes on hand. These starters for crops for Mars are pure coincidence? Common sense survival tactics? Nope. Science has known for years that crops will grow on Mars. And there’s a potato that will grow in almost any set of environmental conditions. Not to mention the fact that you don’t need seed – it’s a harvest that reproduces itself from itself into perpetuity.

“Well, they’ve known for a while that crops can grow in Martian soil,” science nerd and author of The Martian Andy Weir told Engadget. “It’s just a matter of cleaning the perchlorates out of the soil, and providing an Earth-like environment (air, water, temperature, etc.).”

What are percholrates? Salts of perchloric acid. While there are a few food crops that are tolerant of salty soil on Earth, for the most part, these are the result of receding seawater. While seawater soil salinity is harmful to plants, it doesn’t pose a threat to humans. Percholrates, however, do – especially at the high levels found in samples of Martian soil tested during NASA’s Phoenix mission.

Percholrates are toxic to humans in far lower levels than exist in soil on Mars. And they are known to accumulate in vegetables. So, crops on Mars remain an impediment to all but the very briefest human visitation. Remedial crops like tobacco can be used to remove them, but will it be permanent? Will those plants live on Mars? And is it worth the expense to try toxin removal at all?

NASA/CIP Potato Grow: Latest Crops for Mars Experiment

The potatoe CubeSat grow in Peru. (CIPotato)

They can’t bring samples of Martian soil to Earth. Preventing contamination by any microbe native to our planet would render the sample useless. And any microbe or life form from the Red Planet released here could be devastating, to say the least. Then there’s the cost of soil transport purely for the purpose of future speculation or a world we know close to zip about.

But there are a few places on this planet that the soil has similarities to Martian soil. They are all barren… Death Valley in California, the Atacama Desert in Chile, and the Pampas de La Joya desert in southern Peru. It’s the dry soil found in Peru that is closest to that found on Mars. In fact, the La Joya area is the driest place on Earth, receiving no more than a millimeter of rainfall annually. It’s also the oldest desert on our planet.

 “We have been looking at the very dry soils found in the southern Peruvian desert. These are the most Mars-like soils found on Earth.” Chris McKay of NASA ARC. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth…” — CIP Press Room

This isn’t the first time they’ve tested potatoes as crops for Mars. Last summer, the farm lab at NASA’a Melbourne Beach, Florida location tested 65 select varieties of potatoes under high stress conditions. They were looking for the potato that performed the best and delivered the best taste too. Because if you’re going to live 9 months of space travel away from Earth, the least you can ask for is a flavorful potato, right? No results for that test could be located today. So, back to the latest endeavor…

It appears this grow at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru is the first using La Joya soil under totally controlled simulated conditions. This crops for Mars test began in early 2017, and declared a success very recently. The potato breeding experts at CIP selected a newly developed variety created for the incredibly challenging conditions in subtropical lowlands. It’s the best performer for high soil salinity and has exceptional tolerance to abiotic stress.

In case you’re wondering, CIP scientists aren’t  using GMO potatoes in their mission to combat poor diets of peoples living in our planet’s most extreme environments. The scientists at CIP only use traditional breeding methods to develop new potato varieties. So, at this point, no Frakentaters are on the packing list for the first manned Mars expedition in the 2030s.

They used sealed environment inside a CubeSat to test potatoes as crops for Mars grown in Martian conditions on top of planting in soil as close to that of the distant planet as possible.  Day and night temperatures, air pressure, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels mimicked those of the Red Planet. The soil and tuber in the container inside the CubeSat also recieved automated delivery of nutrient-rich water. The conditions inside the growing chamber were monitored constantly via sensors and live streaming cameras to record everything as it happened.

It doesn’t sound like they expected it all to go well, or that the potato was in a hurry to get to work. In the video below, one of the scientists says that ‘eventually’ the potato sprouted. Of course, it’s not the most plant-friendly climate on Mars. Temperatures that are too low or too high always slow down a crop’s progress.

Do the potatoes harvested from this particular crops for Mars experiment taste great? I didn’t come across that information, but it’s unlikely the crop cycle is complete at this point. The poor plant needs more time to reach full maturity, especially with a slow to grow start. Nor will it complete the process in short order under stressful conditions. And on top of all of those growing issues, there’s not enough soil depth inside that CubeSat to develop much of a root system. You need depth to get a good potato harvest!

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Feature image: Al Jazeera Report video screencapture.

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