Would You Eat a Potato Grown on Mars?

The surface of Mars. | Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The surface of Mars. | Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Photo of Peter Ward
Tech Editor10 March 2017

Scientists have pondered whether any form of life could exist on Mars ever since the planet was discovered. Now we may have discovered that potatoes, given the opportunity, could grow on the Red Planet’s surface.

The International Potato Center (CIP) launched a series of experiments to find out if potatoes could grow in the harsh atmospheric conditions of Mars, and the preliminary results are positive.

The study began in February 2016, when a tuber was planted in a specially constructed device called a CubeSat. The CubeSat contained an environment built by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, Peru, based on the advice from NASA ARC, a research center in California.

The CubeSat. | Courtesy CIP.

“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” says Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute who has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) and now works at UTEC in Lima. “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,” he said.

As there’s no Martian soil on Earth, dry salty soil from the Peruvian desert was used as a replacement. The CubeSat houses the soil and the tuber, and mimics the atmosphere on Mars, which is extremely cold and 95 percent carbon dioxide. Presumably, the test was unable to reproduce the low gravity of Mars, however.

The experiment could be encouraging for manned missions to Mars, and does also have potential benefits here on Earth. “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,” CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros said.

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