Potato passes the Mars test

By AP

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box. Photo / Supplied
Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box. Photo / Supplied

If human beings finally reach Mars, they may find themselves depending on the humble, if hardy potato.

Scientists in Peru have used a simulator that mimics the harsh conditions on the Red Planet to successfully grow a small potato plant.

It's an experiment straight out of the 2015 Hollywood movie The Martian that scientists say may also benefit arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change.

"It's not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth," said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru's University of Engineering and Technology who is working with Nasa on the project.

Astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt-Damon, watches potatoes grow on Mars.
Astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt-Damon, watches potatoes grow on Mars.

The experiment began last year - a year after The Martian showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes.

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box: Frosty below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 6000m altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.

Peru was in many ways an apt location to experiment with growing potatoes on Mars. The birthplace of the domesticated potato lies high in the Andes near Lake Titicaca, where it was first grown about 7000 years ago. More than 4000 varieties are grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where potatoes have sprouted even in cold, barren lands.

The Peruvian scientists didn't have to go far to find high-salinity soil similar to that found on Mars, though with some of the organic material Mars lacks: Pampas de la Joya along the country's southern coast receives less than 1mm of rain a year, making its terrain somewhat comparable to the Red Planet's parched ground.

International Potato Centre researchers transported 700kg of the soil to Lima, planted 65 varieties and waited. In the end, just four sprouted from the soil.

In a second stage, scientists planted one of the most robust varieties in the even more extreme conditions of the simulator, with the soil - Mars has no organic soil - replaced by crushed rock and a nutrient solution.

The winning potato: A variety called "Unique". "It's a super potato that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing," Valdivia said.

Nasa itself also has been doing experiments on extraterrestrial agriculture, both for use on spacecraft and perhaps on Mars.

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