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Scientists grow ‘super potatoes’ in Mars-like conditions

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Science fiction of potatoes growing on Mars as showcased in ‘The Martian’ is becoming a reality at least on Earth as scientists have managed to grow ‘super potatoes’ in Mars-like conditions in a lab in Lima, Peru.

The results are indicative of the possibility of one day growing potatoes even on a planet that is pretty harsh as far as climatic conditions go – Mars. Scientists are optimistic that their study will not only prove helpful in deep-space missions, but here on Earth as well as we battle climate change and try to find solutions to growing food on non-cultivable areas on Earth.

The experiment of growing potatoes in harsh conditions like on Mars kicked off in 2016 with scientists in Peru building a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box with temperatures below zero; high carbon monoxide concentrations; air pressure found at 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night. The design for the experiment were provided by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

Scientists didn’t have to go far to find soil with high-salinity akin to the soil on Mars. The team was able to find the soil at Pampas de la Joya, which is along the country’s southern coast. This are receives less than a millimeter of rain a year thereby making the soil here somewhat comparable to the Red Planet’s parched ground.

For the experiment, scientists at the International Potato Center brought back to Lima as much as 700 kilos (1,540 pounds) of the soil. The team planted 65 varieties out of which only four sprouted from the soil.

So in the second stage of the experiment, the team 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. The experiment was live-streamed showing off every tiny movement as a bud sprouted and grew several leaves while sensors provided around-the-clock monitoring of simulator conditions.

Scientists have named the winning potato as ‘Unique’ and the team calls it a ‘super potato’ as it has been able to resist very high carbon dioxide conditions and freezing temperatures.

In the next stage of the experiment, scientists will build three more simulators to grow potato plants under extreme conditions with the hope of gaining a broader range of results. They will also need to increase the carbon dioxide concentrations to more closely imitate the Martian atmosphere.

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