Spuds on Mars: Potatoes Can Sprout in Red Planet Environment, Study Suggests

Mars-simulating potato-growing environment
The Mars-simulating potato-growing environment at the International Potato Center in Peru. (Image credit: CIP)

Potatoes may be able to feed real-life Red Planet explorers, just as they sustained fictional astronaut Mark Watney in the book and movie "The Martian," an ongoing experiment suggests.

On Feb. 14, 2016, researchers at the International Potato Center in Peru (known as CIP, its Spanish acronym) planted a potato tuber in a cubesat-size container that mimics Martian temperatures and atmospheric conditions. The potato sprouted, as you can see in this time-lapse video.

CIP scientists characterized these preliminary results as "positive" and said they plan to perform more experiments. [How Will a Human Mars Base Work? NASA's Vision in Images]

"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," Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California who works at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, said in a statement.

"We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best," Valdivia-Silva added. "We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive."

You can see the potatoes growing live at http://potatoes.space/mars.

All of this potato research could have both Earthly and space-based applications, the scientists said. CIP breeds potato clones that can tolerate high salt conditions or drought. These potato varieties allow small farmers to keep growing food, even in areas that are not prime agricultural land (or those that have been affected by climate change). 

"Lessons learned from the experiments could be applied in Earthly agriculture settings to increase food security around the world," Darryl Waller, a public affairs officer at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, told Space.com via email.

NASA Ames is involved with the potato-growth experiments via astrobiologist Chris McKay, Waller added. McKay has a proposal to investigate Martian plant growth using harsh Pampas de La Joya desert sand from Peru as an analogue. McKay is working with Valdivia-Silva and Melissa Guzman, two affiliated former student contractors.

"This project is a scientific collaboration building on past and current investigations of Mars-like environments here on Earth to better understand the Red Planet," Waller added. Studying Mars analogues like the deserts of Peru allows scientists to "learn more about environments previously thought too extreme to harbor life," he noted.

The soil composition inside the current container was not disclosed in the statement, but a 2016 CIP experiment combined a Martian regolith analogue with ordinary Earth soil. Potatoes grew in that mixture — a finding that could help guide future efforts to establish human outposts on the Red Planet. 

"Future Mars missions that hope to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to allow it to tuberize," CIP researchers said in the same statement.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace