Growing Crops On Mars: New Study Explores Solution To Feeding Our Future Mars Colonists

Synthetic biology could be the way to go if we are to grow successful crops on Mars.

3D illustration of a future Mars colony.
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Synthetic biology could be the way to go if we are to grow successful crops on Mars.

As NASA is working toward sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, the prospect of a future Martian colony is sparking new interest, with plans already being made on how we might accommodate the first wave of explorers on the red planet.

And while we might have some idea of what a future Mars habitat could look like, as the Inquisitr reported earlier today, there’s still the question of how we’d be able to feed our future Mars colonists during prolonged missions to the red planet.

In a recent article written for The Conversation, CSIRO scientist Briardo Llorente, from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, discusses the possibility of sustainable agriculture on the red planet and how we could adapt our knowledge of Earth plants to grow crops on Mars.

Engineering Crops For A Martian Greenhouse

In light of the amazing discovery of a 12-mile-long Martian lake hiding under the planet’s polar ice cap, as reported by the Inquisitr last week, the topic of growing crops on Mars has once again come into focus.

According to Llorente, who published a study on this subject in the journal Genes, the best solution to generate a steady food source for our Martian colonists is advanced synthetic biology — a new interdisciplinary field that “combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science” to redesign natural biological systems.

Together with two other scientists from Macquarie University, Thomas Williams and Hugh Goold, Llorente argues that plant synthetic biology could offer the best means of farming on an alien planet by readapting common crops to the specific conditions of the Martian environment.

“Here we discuss a series of bioengineering endeavors that will enable us to take full advantage of plants in the context of a Martian greenhouse,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Since Earth-grown plants would not fare so well on Mars — where water is mostly present in the form of ice and the surface is blasted with higher amounts of harmful ultraviolet light and cosmic rays, while also getting about half the sunlight we enjoy back home — growing our usual crops on the red planet would force human settlers to allocate large amounts of liquid water and energy to artificially replicate the best conditions for plant growth.

As Llorente points out, these represent “substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars” and which could be spared with the help of plant synthetic biology.

“A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars.”

When applied to growing crops, synthetic biology could lead to improved photosynthesis and photoprotection, that would help shield our plants from the UV rays on Mars. At the same time, the crops of our future Martian colonists could be engineered to have a greater tolerance to drought and cold and tweaked to yield a richer harvest.

“We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality,” says Llorente, who works at the university’s department of molecular sciences.

Mars Biofoundry On Earth

“This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry,” states Llorente, explaining that this type of automated robotic facility would be able to engineer and test the optimum plant DNA designs, leading to Mars-friendly crops that could weather the harsh conditions on the red planet.

Such an approach would have multiple benefits for future Mars colonists, the three scientists detailed in their study.

“In addition to generating oxygen, fixing carbon, and recycling waste and water, plants could play a critical role in producing food and biomass feedstock for the microbial manufacture of materials, chemicals, and medicines in long-term interplanetary outposts,” explains the paper.

Furthermore, establishing a Mars biofoundry on Earth would do more than test how the newly-designed plants perform under simulated Martian conditions.

“Synthetic biology efforts towards this goal will contribute to solving some of the main agricultural and industrial challenges here on Earth,” the authors wrote in their paper, pointing to improved plant research and greater development of food security and environmental protection practices.