It may appear strange to hear that crops are making headlines. But this is no ordinary produce — these fruits and vegetables have been grown in simulated Martian and lunar soil! While that in itself makes them special, what makes this batch even more so is that it is safe for human consumption!
Though the possibility of growing extraterrestrial crops has only garnered widespread interest after Matt Damon’s character cultivated potatoes in “The Martian,” scientists have been testing the idea for many years. Fresh produce, will after all, be the key to establishing interstellar colonies, whether they be on the moon or the Red Planet.
Among the pioneers in this effort is a team led by Wieger Wamelink, an ecologist at Netherland’s Wageningen University. The researchers’ quest to grow crops in “extraterrestrial” soil began in 2013, when they planted fourteen varieties of plants, ranging from shamrocks, to crops like rye, and tomatoes, in simulated Martian and lunar soil. Though the “Mars” plants did not yield any produce, they fared better than the “lunar” plants, most of which died shortly after germination. The researchers attributed the failure to lack of moisture and the toxic effect of aluminum in the lunar soil.
For the second experiment, which began in late 2015, the researchers selected the same crops. However, this time, they used larger containers and added grass to provide “green” manure. In March 2016, their efforts were rewarded with a variety of produce that included rucola, cress, radish, peas, rye, tomatoes, and the vegetable that kept “The Martian,” alive: potatoes.
While that was certainly encouraging, the researchers were still not sure if the produce was safe to eat. That’s because the Martian and lunar soils contain heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic, which do not affect plants but are toxic to humans.
After months of testing, earlier this week, the team finally declared that the produce was safe to eat. While the radishes did have higher than desired levels of aluminum, iron, and nickel, the researchers believe that it was due to the presence of soil on the outside of the vegetable. Even more encouraging? Some of the crops possessed lower levels of lead, arsenic, and copper than plants grown in “ordinary” earth soil. This suggests that extraterrestrial produce may be healthier than what we eat!
The scientists do warn that the uptake of heavy metals may be different under the low gravity conditions found on Mars and the moon. But since that can only be verified with “on-site” research by the first settlers, the team is now moving on to their next set of experiments. This one is closer to Earth and involves investigating possible plant growth in the sands of the Sahara desert!
And in case you are wondering, the extraterrestrial produce did not go to waste. To celebrate the success of their project, on August 30, the Dutch scientists invited all their sponsors to a four-course dinner that centered around the crops. While there is no word on how the food tasted, it sure looks delicious.
Resources: crowdfunding.wageningenur.nl, inhabtiat.com, phys.com