New Research Seeks To Make Mars Soil Fit For Growing Food

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News in brief: Researchers at University College Dublin are conducting the MARSCROP project, aiming to utilise plant root microbes for cultivating safe and nutritious food on Mars despite its challenging conditions, using phytoremediation and co-cropping techniques, with implications for sustainable agriculture on Earth.

New study by researchers at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland, seeks to harness microbes in plant root systems to allow for the production of safe and nutritious food using soil from Mars.

The research, also known as the MARSCROP project, is Ireland’s first space genomics venture. The surface of Mars is expected to become arable as a result of the research in the near future.

Remember that Mars’s atmosphere is nearly a hundred degrees centigrade thinner than that of Earth. Other harsh conditions like low sunlight, zero freshwater, and a temperature of about -62 degrees Celsius make the planet inhospitable for normal plant growth. Additionally, Mars’s soil lacks nutrients and contains ‘contaminants’ known to be toxic to human and plant life.

However, the researchers are hoping to surmount these challenges with a method known as phytoremediation, an eco-friendly method of cleaning up toxic materials from the soil using hardy or naturally resilient crops.

By co-cropping these contaminant-tolerant crops like willow alongside food crops, the team hopes to benefit from each crop’s distinct capabilities to allow for safe and nutritious food production.

The team hopes that the process will help overcome the challenges by mitigating soil toxicity and capturing nutrients.

A researcher from the team and European Space Agency PhD student, Stefania Sabau, highlighted the significance of the project. She said that food production is a key priority in current space life sciences research as humans pursue longer duration space missions. Sustainable food production is a key component of ensuring human survival away from the planet, the researcher said.

In addition, she stated that it was an exciting idea to explore the abilities of complex natural solutions to overcome some of space exploration challenges. She added that these challenges could be solved using highly contaminant-resistant, non-food crops and their associated microbiome.

Researchers from the University of Montreal, McGill University, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to the project.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s Open Space Innovation Platform, Canadian Space Agency, and UCD Ad Astra program are providing funding. Talam Biotech, a phytoremediation company at NovaUCD, and Flynn’s Tomatoes (MF Nurseries) are also supporting the research work.

Positive implications of the project beyond Mars include enabling future research into sustainable agriculture and reducing contamination in soil and water globally.

The research team believes that understanding plant microbiome functionality and developing innovative biotechnologies hold the potential to shape both agricultural future and protect Earth’s environment.

Joseph Akahome
Joseph Akahome
Joseph O Akahome (OJ) is a writer, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Literature from the University of Benin. He is an avid agriculturist, with a bias for poultry and an insatiable appetite for chicken wings. When he is neither reading nor researching, he likes to spend recreational time playing board games, or swimming in serene forested lakes.

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