Mashed is from Mars: Lab grow­ing space potato

National Post (National Edition) - - NAVIGATOR - FRANKLIN BRICENO

LIMA, PERU • In a lab in the Peru­vian cap­i­tal of Lima, a sim­u­la­tor mim­ick­ing the harsh con­di­tions found on Mars now con­tains a hint of life: a nascent potato plant.

Af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing in the An­dean na­tion’s dry, desert soil, sci­en­tists have suc­cess­fully grown a potato in frigid, high car­bon-diox­ide sur­round­ings.

Though still in early stages, in­ves­ti­ga­tors at the In­ter­na­tional Potato Cen­tre be­lieve the ini­tial re­sults are a promis­ing in­di­ca­tor that pota­toes might one day be har­vested un­der con­di­tions as hos­tile as those on Mars.

The find­ings could ben­e­fit not only fu­ture Mars ex­plo­ration, but also arid re­gions al­ready feel­ing the im­pact of cli­mate change.

“It’s not only about bring­ing pota­toes to Mars, but also find­ing a potato that can re­sist non-cul­tivable ar­eas on Earth,” said Julio Val­divia, an as­tro­bi­ol­o­gist with Peru’s Univer­sity of En­gi­neer­ing and Tech­nol­ogy who is work­ing with NASA on the project.

The ex­per­i­ment be­gan in 2016 — a year af­ter the Hol­ly­wood film The Mar­tian showed a stranded as­tro­naut sur­viv­ing by fig­ur­ing out how to grow pota­toes on the red planet.

Peru­vian sci­en­tists built a sim­u­la­tor akin to a Marsin-a-box: Frosty be­low-zero tem­per­a­tures, high car­bon monox­ide con­cen­tra­tions, the air pres­sure found at 6,000 me­tres al­ti­tude and a sys­tem of lights im­i­tat­ing the Mar­tian day and night.

Though thou­sands of miles away from col­leagues at NASA’s Ames Re­search Cen­tre in Cal­i­for­nia pro­vid­ing de­signs and ad­vice, Peru was in many ways an apt lo­ca­tion to ex­per­i­ment with grow­ing pota­toes on Mars.

The birth­place of the do­mes­ti­cated potato lies high in the An­des near Lake Tit­i­caca, where it was first grown about 7,000 years ago. More than 4,000 va­ri­eties are grown in Peru, Bo­livia and Ecuador, where pota­toes have sprouted even in cold, bar­ren lands.

The Peru­vian sci­en­tists didn’t have to go far to find high-salin­ity soil sim­i­lar to that found on Mars, though with some of the or­ganic ma­te­rial Mars lacks: Pam­pas de la Joya along the coun­try’s south­ern coast re­ceives less than a mil­lime­tre of rain a year, mak­ing its ter­rain some­what com­pa­ra­ble to the Red Planet’s parched ground.

In­ter­na­tional Potato Cen­tre re­searchers trans­ported 700 ki­los of the soil to Lima, planted 65 va­ri­eties and waited. In the end, just four sprouted from the soil.

In a sec­ond stage, sci­en­tists 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.

Live-stream­ing cam­eras caught ev­ery tiny move­ment as a bud sprouted and grew sev­eral leaves while sen­sors pro­vided round-the-clock mon­i­tor­ing of sim­u­la­tor con­di­tions.

The win­ning potato: A va­ri­ety called “Unique.”

“It’s a ‘super potato’ that re­sists very high car­bon diox­ide con­di­tions and tem­per­a­tures that get to freez­ing,” Val­divia said.

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