New NASA Experiment Shows Potatoes Can Grow in Mars-Like Conditions

The NASA-backed “Potatoes on Mars” project just grew tubers in Mars-like conditions.

NASA has longed for a crewed mission to the red planet for decades, and Congress recently passed a bill that implores the space agency to reach the red planet by 2033. The agency is also exploring ideas of a Martian colony.

To that end, scientists at NASA and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, built a tuber-growing experiment that recreates the extreme conditions on the surface of Mars.

The entire experiment takes place inside a rocket-launchable box called a CubeSat. The CubeSat is rigged with pumps, water hoses, LED lights, and instruments to emulate Mars-like temperatures, night-and-day light cycles, gases, and air pressure.

In February 2017, researchers dumped practically lifeless soil from Peru’s Pampas de la Joya desert inside, planted a tuber in it, sealed up the box, and began filming to see what happened.

“Preliminary results are positive,” a CIP press release announced, establishing that a potato plant has successfully grown in inhospitable desert soil under Mars-like conditions.

“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,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a NASA researcher at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, said in the release.

However, the experiment does not provide the ironclad proof a would-be Martian potato farmer needs.

For one, the soil didn’t actually originate from Mars. Though it was arid and inhospitable, it could still have contained microbes that may have facilitated the potato plant’s growth.

The experiment also used potato cuttings instead of seeds. This is an issue because making potatoes last on for a months- or years-long journey may require heating under pressure (called “thermostabilization”) or a blast of radiation. This damages the cells of a potato.

However, several other experiments have shown it may be possible to grow food in Martian soil and in even-more-inhospitable moon dust, called regolith.

The CIP, NASA, and other institutions are now looking to see how several varieties of potatoes perform in the Mars-like CubeSat box, including special varieties they’ve genetically engineered to withstand harsh conditions.

“We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best,” Valdivia-Silva said. “We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”

Aside from helping astronauts become farmers of the future, the work also stands to benefit humans 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,” the researchers said.