Growing Potatoes on Mars

“My best bet for making calories is potatoes. They grow prolifically and have a reasonable calorie count. … I can’t just live off the land forever. But I can extend my life. The potatoes will last me 76 days.” – The Martian by Andy Weir

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land in northern Chile that reaches into portions of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. Within it lies a region 10,000 feet in elevation that, thanks to a double rain shadow, is so intensely dry that nothing, not even microbial life, can survive. Rain falls in this region perhaps once every 10 years, and even then precipitation is paltry. This area is so desolate and devoid of life that NASA scientists consider it Mars-like and have used the area to test equipment that is bound for Mars. Studies have found that the soil in this region is similar to Martian soil – so similar, in fact, that it is now being used to test the feasibility of growing potatoes on Mars.

The study is being carried out by NASA in collaboration with Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), an agriculture research institution based in Lima, Peru. The efforts consist of an initial series of three experiments. Apart from investigating methods for growing potatoes in a Martian environment, researchers hope to develop ways to improve potato production on marginal land here on Earth in order to increase yields and provide a sustainable source of food in parts of the world that so desperately need it.

The wild crop relative of the cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum) is native to the Andes. It was originally domesticated by the indigenous people of Peru at least 8,000 years ago. Spanish explorers brought potatoes back to Europe around 1570, and over the next several hundred years cultivation of potatoes spread throughout the world. It is now one of the world’s top 5 food crops and is a staple food source in many regions. So why not Mars?

potatoes-on-mars-nasa-and-cip

The first phase of experiments is currently under way. A selection of potato cultivars that have attributes such as quick maturity, virus resistance, tolerance to high temperatures, and resistance to drought are being grown in soil taken from the Mars-like region of the Atacama Desert. The second phase will consider the transportation of the potatoes from Earth to Mars, a nine month journey. The harvest from the first experiment will be frozen, thawed, and then planted to determine if the propagules remain viable after making the journey through space. The final phase of the experiments will entail growing the potatoes inside of CubeSat modules in which a Mars-like environment can be simulated. The specifics of these studies vary across multiple reports, so this may be a slight misrepresentation of the actual research program. As official reports emerge, the exact methods will be more clear.

According to this post on the CIP website, this collaboration is “a major step towards building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the invaluable crop in order to demonstrate that potatoes can be grown in the most inhospitable environments.” The post goes on to laud the nutrient benefits of the potato and its potential to address issues of food security, poverty, and malnutrition. As NASA seeks for ways to sustain an eventual human mission to Mars, CIP looks to address global hunger. Together they see potential in the potato.

red potatoes

Space programs, even those that seem overly ambitious, offer benefits that can extend into all aspects of our lives. That is why I remain intrigued by experiments such as these that involve growing plants in space or on other planets. We may never find ourselves mass producing food for human populations outside of Earth (or maybe we will), but what we can learn in the process of simply seeing what is possible has great potential to increase our botanical knowledge and improve agricultural efforts here on our home planet.

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Growing Plants in Outer Space

Last December I wrote about a mission to the moon that will involve growing plants to determine how they will perform in a lunar environment. That mission is still at least a year away. In the meantime, research involving plant growth in space continues onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Numerous experiments have been carried out so far with the general aim of observing the effects of microgravity and other extraterrestrial environmental factors on plant growth. The larger aim, of course, is to develop methods for growing food in space in order to feed future space travelers as they colonize other celestial bodies, such as the Moon and Mars. Providing oxygen and contributing to psychological well-being are additional benefits of growing plants in space.

International Space Station (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

International Space Station (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Several weeks ago a spacecraft returned to Earth from ISS carrying samples and data from a variety of studies, including a plant study being carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Botany. The study consisted of three groups of Arabidopsis thaliana – a wild type group, a group with a gene involved in gravity sensing always turned on, and a group with that same gene always turned off. The plants were grown from seed on petri dishes, and the seedlings (totaling 1000 plants) were returned to Earth after a few weeks of growth. The petri dishes were placed in deep freeze upon returning to Madison. Eventually, RNA will be extracted from each of the plants and analyzed.

Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) that is commonly used in biological studies because it is fast growing with a short life cycle – it germinates, flowers, and produces seed in about 6 weeks  – and it has a relatively small genome that has been completely mapped. This makes it ideal for studies like this one that aim to observe genes involved in responding to particular environmental factors – in this case microgravity.

Arabidopsis thaliana (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Arabidopsis thaliana (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Plants grown in the weightlessness of space get long, spindly, and weak. Plants grown on Earth in a protected environment without mechanical stresses like wind or rain are more susceptible to pests and diseases compared to those that are subject to such disturbances. It turns out that there is a gene that codes for a protein that senses gravity, and this same protein senses other mechanical stresses as well. This means that studies that help advance the science of growing plants in space could also help improve crop plants here on Earth.

The RNA extracted from the Arabidobsis plants recently returned from space will not only aid in the research being done at UW-Madison, but will also become part of a much larger body of research through NASA’s GeneLab. Access to space is limited, so GeneLab makes available the data recovered from studies like this one to anyone interested in doing studies of their own. The GeneLab will also make it possible to compare the Arabidopsis groups in this study to several other Arabidopsis ecotypes, which will aid in determining plants best suited for microgravity environments.

Read more about this study at NASA, Science Daily, and Plants in Microgravity (a blog produced by Simon Gilroy’s Lab, Department of Botany, UW-Madison). Also, “plants in space” has a Wikipedia page