The question of whether there is life on Mars or not has been quite an intriguing one, as scientists hope to find proof that the Red Planet can sustain some sort of life. And while it wasn’t an actual Martian experiment, a new experiment was able to grow potatoes “on Mars” by mimicking the Red Planet’s extreme weather conditions and other features.
Those who watched the 2015 film The Martian may be familiar with the film’s main character, astronaut Mark Watney, as played by Matt Damon. While stranded on Mars, the Watney character deduced that he would need three years’ worth of food on top of his existing food rations. As Slate described it, Watney was able to grow potatoes on Mars, making use of potatoes from the storeroom and fertilizing them with human waste. And while that was a work of fiction, the Inquisitr wrote late in 2015 that NASA was apparently inspired by The Martian, as it teamed up with Peru’s International Potato Center to see if it is indeed possible that potatoes can survive in Mars if grown there.
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Fast forward more than a year later, and it appears that these efforts have turned out well so far. According to Phys.org, the second phase of the CIP’s potato experiments took off on February 14, 2016, as the organization planted a potato inside a special CubeSat contained environment, with the CubeSat built by Lima’s University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) based on “designs and advice” offered by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. UPI noted that the box was designed to simulate Mars’ day-night patterns, its temperature, air pressure, and atmosphere, and features sensors that allow scientists to see how the potato plants are progressing.
The Potatoes on Mars initiative, as it was simply known, was created by CIP in an effort to see how potatoes can hold up on the Red Planet, with extreme Martian weather taken into account. And with over a year having passed since the first tuber was grown inside the CubeSat, preliminary results have been “positive” so far.
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“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” said researcher Julio Valdivia-Silva, who had previously worked at NASA ARC and is presently connected with UTEC in Peru. “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. 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.”
Phys.org quoted CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros, who said that among all forms of possible life on Mars, potatoes can adapt extremely well to extreme environments. As such, CIP has leveraged their findings to create potato clones that are capable of withstanding soil salinity and drought events. These clones, however, are designed for farmers in “marginal areas” that may be especially affected by climate change.
As for future Mars missions, Amoros commented that these would necessitate the preparation of loosely-packed soil that is rich in nutrients that could allow tubers to get the right amount of air and water. He also noted that one of the best-performing potato plants in the CIP experiments was an extremely salt-tolerant variety that was originally designed to thrive in Bangladesh’s salty coastal soils.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil.”
While it isn’t sure whether the Potatoes on Mars initiative will prove Matt Damon’s Mark Watney character right by helping nurture life on Mars, Amoros stressed that the most important immediate implication of the new experiments is how the findings can help people in areas affected by climate change and extreme weather.
“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” he concluded.
[Featured Image by Dmitriy Gutkovskiy/Shutterstock]