In the 2015 film The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is stranded on the red planet after his crew leaves him for dead in the wake of a violent dust storm. Faced with dwindling rations, Watney uses his botany and engineering know-how, plus a generous serving of his own waste, to improvise a potato farm on Martian ground. Could something like that work in real life? Scientists who are conducting proof-of-concept experiments at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, think so. The project is more than someone’s flight of fancy; crops that can grow on Mars would find some of Earth’s inhospitable habitats downright cozy. And since one of the research center’s goals is to develop solutions for global hunger, their results could have significant implications beyond space travel.
Working with engineers from Lima’s University of Technology and Engineering, CIP constructed a miniature satellite, known as a CubeSat, to house a tuber and some dirt. The CubeSat is a hermetically sealed environment, allowing the researchers to not only simulate Mars’s temperature and air pressure but also its oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Preliminary results bode well, both for future space migrants and a world wracked by the extremes of climate change. Cameras inside the satellite have revealed tiny sprouts poking through the soil.
“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate who works at UTEC, told PhysOrg. “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.”
Walter Amoros, a potato breeder at CIP, says that potatoes have tremendous genetic capacity for adaptation to severe environments. There are more than 4,000 varieties of edible potato, including a number that can tolerate the dry, salty soils of the Pampas de La Joya desert—the closest analog to Martian soil.
“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.” said Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research Center, which collaborated on the project. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth.”
There’s another reason why Watney chose to grow potatoes over, say, carrots in the movie. Potatoes are high yield and calorically dense. In addition, they pack a wallop of essential vitamins and minerals.
They don’t taste half bad, either—so long as you don’t run out of ketchup.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” Amoros said. “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,”
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