LIMA, PERU—The potato, first cultivated by humans seven thousand years ago in what is now southern Peru, made its way from the New World to Europe in the late 16th century. If scientists are successful in their latest experiments with the plant, it could make its longest journey yet: 249 million miles to the fourth planet in our solar system – Mars.
In 2016, scientists from Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology began working with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to determine if potatoes could be grown in conditions similar to the inhospitable martian environment. Research started in Pampas de Joya, along Peru’s southern coast, where the salty soil and lack of rain mimics Mars’ terrain. Transporting almost a ton of the soil to a simulator in Lima which imitates the martian climate, they planted 65 varieties of potato. Four of the plants sprouted.
Upping the ante, scientists then planted one of the hardier strains in more extreme conditions by replacing the organic soil, which Mars lacks, with crushed rock and a nutrient solution. The result was a success. A strain of potato researchers named “Unique” had taken root.
“It’s a ‘super potato’ that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing,” Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist working on the project told the Associated Press.
Although similar to Earth in many ways, Mars remains hostile to life. It’s atmosphere is about 96 percent carbon dioxide, and temperatures can range from 95 degrees Fahrenheit at the equator, to minus 225 degrees at the poles. While it is impossible to grow crops openly in the hostile Martian climate, the experiment has given scientists hope that food could be grown in a controlled environment on the planet.
Scientists intend to continue experimenting with the potato by building three more simulators, which will more closely replicate the Red Planet’s ecosphere.