NASA has started growing potatoes in conditions similar to Mars using soil from the most arid spot on Earth, the Atacama desert. In another notable case of real-life emulating art, the space agency is taking a leaf out of Hollywood’s playbook from the film ‘The Martian’ where Matt Damon’s astronaut character grows potatoes under a make-shift greenhouse on the Red Planet.
Peruvian capital Lima is home to this bold experiment which began in January, at the International Potato Centre, a non-profit organisation dedicated to food security.
There are 4000 varieties of potato to be found in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. NASA in collaboration with researchers at the Centre are testing 40 of these species, along with 60 genetically modified varieties, to see if they can hold up to a pseudo-Martian environment.
With human feet yet to land on the surface of Mars, a permanent human colony on the planet seems ripped straight from the pages of science fiction. Mars One, a supposed non-profit organisation which garnered significant publicity in 2014, claims it has plans to depart for Mars in 2020 – on a one-way mission.
What is not disputed, however, is the need for a food source for any potential colonists – regardless of the timeline. To carry out the experiment, scientists sourced 91 kilograms from the La Joya Pampas region of the Atacama Desert, and brought it to the facilities. A series of tests will be conducted on the potato varieties, testing their resilience.
Why potatoes? As one potato can contain 10% of a person’s calorie requirements, it would undoubtedly be a useful crop for potential colonists. NASA intends to continue these experiments until at least March, to see which varieties can not only survive, but reproduce in large quantities.
“We’re almost 100 percent certain that many of the selected potatoes will past the tests,” said Julio Valdivia Silva, a Peruvian NASA astrobiologist. In the short-term, the tests may help solve food shortages resulting from drought. The genetically-modified potato species were altered to require little water and salt, and are resistant to viruses.
“We must be prepared for the future. To respond to desertification, rising temperature and high salt content in the soil,” said Jan Kreuze, a virologist at the International Potato Centre. By identifying resilient potato species, the more earthly ambition of alleviating food shortages and malnutrition may be but one small step away.