The humble potato is the super crop that could grow on Mars

9 Mar 2017

Image: nednapa/Shutterstock

If we are to ever have a colony on Mars, the potato plant could sustain human habitation, as a new study finds it could actually grow on the planet.

A human Mars colony could be just a decade away; that is, if researchers and manufacturers here on Earth can find a way to prevent us absorbing massive amounts of cancer-causing radiation.

If the human race manages to travel three years to our nearest neighbour and establish a base, the potato plant may be the greatest source of food for generations to come.

In the film The Martian, Matt Damon plays a botanist stranded on Mars who survives by building a habitat to grow potatoes in greenhouse-like conditions.

According to new research from the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, it might have just been easier to grow them outside, on the Martian surface.

Scientists from the International Potato Center wanted to see if the plant could grow in an extreme environment, so they recreated Mars-like conditions in an experimental CubeSat (box).

The box was specifically designed to replicate the elements of the Martian surface, including the exact same day and night cycle as well its temperature, air pressure and atmosphere.

Immediate uses on Earth

Incredibly, after a period of a few weeks, the scientists found that the plant was beginning to grow just as it would on Earth.

The team chose a specific variety that had been engineered to grow here on Earth in the difficult terrain of Bangladesh, where salty coastal soil would make it difficult for a completely natural potato to grow.

“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,” said researcher Julio Valdivia-Silva.

“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.”

Looking at the short term, the researchers believe the potatoes could be used to help areas affected by drastic climate change.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic