NASA wants to grow potatoes on Mars

In Ridley Scott's science fiction drama The Martian, Matt Damon's character plays a botanist who discovers how to grow potatoes on the Red Planet. Now, scientists are conducting an experiment that will bring them a step closer to making that a reality.

NASA and the Peru-based International Potato Centre (CIP) will start cultivating potatoes in Mars-like conditions on Earth, with the hope of eventually building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the ancient crop.

The team will replicate Martian atmospheric conditions in a laboratory, using soil from Peru's Pampas de La Joya desert —reportedly nearly identical to that found on the Red Planet.

"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," CIP explained in a recent press release.

By understanding atmospheric changes on the surface of Mars, the team hopes it will help build more dynamic and accurate simulation centers on Earth. If successful, the experiment could see CIP and NASA pioneer space farming for future manned missions to not just Mars, but other planets and moons in the solar system.

"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." said Chris McKay, planetary scientist of the NASA Ames research center.

A second goal of the project is to highlight the role of potatoes in improving global food security.

"How better to learn about climate change than by growing crops on a planet that died two billion years ago?" said Joel Ranck, CIP's 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."

Agronomists have long advocated potato farming in areas rife with malnutrition, poverty and pasture scarcity due to its high nutrient levels and the ability to grow in challenging conditions. The earliest known record of potatoes dates back to around 2500 BC when the indigenous Aymara Indians in modern-day Peru and Bolivia were cultivating the vegetable.

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