Potato plant successfully cultivated in replica of Mars’s climate

A potato plant has been successfully grown in a simulator in Peru designed to mimic the harsh conditions found on Mars.

After experimenting in the Andean nation’s dry desert soil, scientists in the capital of Lima have grown a potato in frigid, high-carbon-dioxide surroundings.

It is still in the early stages, but researchers at the International Potato Centre believe the initial results are a promising indicator that potatoes might one day be harvested under conditions as hostile as those on Mars.

The findings could benefit not only future Mars exploration, but also 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 at Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology who is working with Nasa on the project.

The experiment began in 2016 – a year after Hollywood film ‘The Martian’ showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes on the Red Planet.

Peruvian scientists built a simulator with sub-zero temperatures, high-carbon-dioxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 19,700ft altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.

The simulator is thousands of miles away from colleagues at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California providing designs and advice, but 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 7,000 years ago.

More than 4,000 varieties are grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where potatoes have sprouted even in cold, barren lands.

The Peruvian scientists did not 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 on the country’s southern coast receives less than a millimetre of rain a year, making its terrain comparable to the Red Planet’s parched ground.

International Potato Centre researchers transported 1,540lb 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.

Live-streaming cameras caught every tiny movement as a bud sprouted and grew several leaves while sensors provided around-the-clock monitoring of simulator conditions.

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