Washington: In a bid to grow potatoes in the most inhospitable environments to save millions of lives on the Earth, a team of world-class scientists is set to grow potatoes under the tough Martian conditions.
The experiment, led by the International Potato Centre (CIP) in Peru and NASA, is a major step towards building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the invaluable crop.
"I am excited to put potatoes on Mars and even more so that we can use a simulated Martian terrain so close to the area where potatoes originated,” said Julio E Valdivia-Silva, research associate of NASA who is leading the project's science team.
By using soils almost identical to those found on Mars, sourced from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru, the teams will replicate Martian atmospheric conditions in a laboratory and grow potatoes.
The increased levels of carbon dioxide will benefit the crop, whose yield is two to four times that of a regular grain crop under normal Earth conditions.
The Martian atmosphere is near 95 percent carbon dioxide.
"The extraordinary efforts of the team have set the bar for extraterrestrial farming. The idea of growing food for human colonies in space could be a reality very soon," added Chris McKay, planetary scientist of the NASA Ames research centre.
Beyond the ability to thrive in challenging conditions, potatoes are also highly nutritious.
An excellent source of vitamin C, iron and zinc, they contain critical micro-nutrients missing in vulnerable communities globally.
"How better to learn about climate change than by growing crops on a planet that died two billion years ago?" noted Joel Ranck, CIP head of communications.
"We need people to understand that if we can grow potatoes in extreme conditions like those on Mars, we can save lives on Earth," he added.
Currently, famine affects 842 million people around the world.
Global warming creates poor soil conditions and increases the prevalence of pests and disease which have the combined effect of limiting harvests globally but particularly in vulnerable areas where poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity already exist.
Understanding atmospheric changes on the surface of Mars will help build more dynamic and accurate simulation centres on the Earth.
The goal is to raise awareness of the incredible resilience of potatoes and fund further research and farming in devastated areas across the globe where malnutrition and poverty are rife and climbing, the authors concluded.