Potatoes can indeed grow on conditions akin to those on Mars and this findings will have major implications on a manned mission to the Red Planet as well as other deep-space missions and possibility of growing food in some of the most harsh conditions on Earth.
Researchers in Peru carried out a two stage experiment designed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. While in the first stage only four of the 65 varieties of potatoes sown in the lab conditions sprouted, the second stage experiment yielded much more fruitful results with a robust variety of potato now named ‘Unique’ not only sprouting but also growing several leaves.
According to TopExaminer.com, the experiment to grow potatoes in Mars-like conditions started in Peru in 2016 – soon after the movie The Martian feature Matt Daemon was released. Scientists in Peru built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box with environmental conditions such as temperatures below zero; high carbon monoxide concentrations; air pressure found at 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.
One of the basic things required by any crop is soil. However, for this experiment the requirement of the soil was unique as scientists needed soil with high salinity. Scientists didn’t have to go far to find such soil as it was available at Pampas de la Joya, which is along Peru’s southern coast. This particular area receives less than a millimeter of rain annually and hence the soil here is somewhat comparable to the Red Planet’s parched ground. For the experiment, scientists at the International Potato Center brought back to Lima as much as 700 kilos (1,540 pounds) of the soil.
Scientists have named the winning potato as ‘Unique’ and the team calls it a ‘super potato’ as it has been able to resist very high carbon dioxide conditions and freezing temperatures.
In the next stage of the experiment, scientists will build three more simulators to grow potato plants under extreme conditions with the hope of gaining a broader range of results. They will also need to increase the carbon dioxide concentrations to more closely imitate the Martian atmosphere.