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Potatoes may be able to grow on Mars, a first simulation under Martian conditions suggests

Potatoes may be able to grow on Mars, a first simulation under Martian conditions suggests

A first experiment under simulated Martian conditions suggests a potato CAN grow on Mars.
The experiment was carried out in a sealed container - temperature and light following the Martian day and night conditions and Mars air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels were mimicked.
Follow it yourself on the livestream.

The International Potato Center (CIP) launched a series of experiments to discover if potatoes can grow under Mars atmospheric conditions and thereby prove they are also able to grow in extreme climates on Earth.

This Phase Two effort of CIP’s proof of concept experiment to grow potatoes in simulated Martian conditions began on February 14, 2016 when a tuber was planted in a specially constructed CubeSat contained environment built by engineers from University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima based upon designs and advice provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Ames Research Center (NASA ARC), California.

The Potatoes on Mars project was conceived by CIP to both understand how potatoes might grow in Mars conditions and also see how they survive in the extreme conditions similar to what parts of the world already suffering from climate change and weather shocks are already experiencing.

Julio Valdivia-Silva

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:

“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment.”

“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.”
The CubeSat houses a container holding soil and the tuber. Inside this hermetically sealed environment the CubeSat delivers nutrient rich water, controls the temperature for Mars day and night conditions and mimics Mars air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Sensors constantly monitor these conditions and live streaming cameras record the soil in anticipation of the potato sprouting.

Watch the growing potato plant

Watch the live streams of the experiment
According to CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros, one advantage potato great genetic capacity for adaptation to extreme environments. CIP has tapped into that capacity by breeding potato clones that tolerate conditions such as soil salinity and drought, in order to help smallholder farmers grow food in marginal areas that could grow harsher under climate change.

(Click picture to watch video)

Video capturing the initial growth of the potato

In 2016, CIP brought Mars analog soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Southern Peru to its experimental station in La Molina, Lima. There CIP was able to show proof that potatoes could grow in this dry, salty soil with some help from fertilized Earth soil for both nutrition and structure.

Chris McKay, NASA ARC

Chris McKay of NASA ARC:

“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.”

“This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth.”
From the initial experiment, CIP scientists concluded that future Mars missions that hope to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to allow it to tuberize.

Walter Amoros, CIP potato breeder

Walter Amoros, CIP potato breeder:

“It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil.”
He added that one of the best performing varieties was very salt-tolerant from the CIP breeding program for adaptation to subtropical lowlands with tolerance to abiotic stress that was also recently released as a variety in Bangladesh for cultivation in coastal areas with high soil salinity.

Amoros noted that whatever their implications for Mars missions, the experiments have already provided good news about potato’s potential for helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth.

Walter Amoros:

“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 Potatoes on Mars project has been conducted by CIP with the advice of NASA ARC and construction of the CubeSat technology was done by student engineers and their advisors at UTEC.

NASA and UTEC scientist Julio Valdivia-Silva collaborated extensively with teams of UTEC and CIP scientists on both phases of this experiment. He identified the soil from Pampas de La Joya desert and led the effort to construct the sophisticated CubeSat.
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The International Potato Center or Centro Internacional de la Papa (also known by its Spanish acronym, CIP) seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries.