Mars Exchange
Food for Mars: A Student’s Story

Food for Mars: A Student’s Story

by Natasha Schön on Thursday, 21st January 2016 in Food for Mars, STEM

To me the end and beginning of a year is all about finishing projects and that does not include, unfortunately, an experiment on how to grow plants on Mars. This does not mean that nothing is happening at the moment. High-school student Wouter van As from the Norbertuscollege in Roosendaal is doing a small scale experiment with some cool results! This is the twelfth post in a blog series about experiments conducted by a team of ecologists and crop scientists of Wageningen UR. The goal of these experiments is a proof of concepts for providing the first (human) Martians with ‘own-grown’ fresh food. Find the links to our other eleven blog posts below!

Two months ago, highschool student Wouter van As visited us to collect what was left over from the Mars soil simulant to start his own experiment at his school in Roosendaal. The topic of his research was: ‘What is the impact of the lower light intensity on Mars on the growth of crops?’ His crops are sweet corn, courgette, tomato, radish and red beans. Could the latter be used by human colonists to produce gasses used as fuel? He drove with his parents all around the Netherlands in a quest to collect the soil and the special growth lamps. From his story I came to the conclusion that he must have bought them at a growing shop. The lamps must have been meant for growing something else other than plants on Martian soil...Luckily, growing plants on Martian soil is (still) legal.

Now, after one month of growing plants with both Earth and Martian light intensity, the first results are there. The courgette grew well and is already blossoming. However, the most beautiful result are the red beans, since under Martian (less) light conditions the beans formed bigger leaves. This is just as I predicted and even wrote about blog 9 about the recent movie ‘The Martian’; where the stranded astronaut’s potato plants should have produced bigger leaves instead of strange small leaves. Another major question for Wouter is whether it is safe to eat the plants cultivated on Martian soil simulant. He was able to do some analyses of heavy metal content of the above ground biomass thanks to his sponsor NutriControl in Veghel. They conducted analyses for lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. Results were promising, which means that all analyses for the crops gave contents below the safe threshold values. So in principle the plants can be eaten. However, these are analyses of whole plants and not on the fruits which are the only parts we would normally eat. Whether or not they are safe to eat remains unsolved for now.

Some progress was still made by me this year, since the results of the 2015 experiment are now ready and all the calculations have been done. I am now thinking about how to publish them, as the content may be too thin for an official publication. However, since there is some money left we can do some analyses of heavy metals for three species. The major question is now to decide which species to anaylse: tomato, rye, radish, pea or garden cress? And do we have enough fruits or seeds to just analyse? Moreover, we are near to winning (fingers crossed!) a small government funded that would be used to conduct analyses on Martian plants with a mass spectrometer, which will identify plant substances. If we get the money, we still will need funding to grow the plants for it though. I wonder if life on Mars would be simpler...?

Story contributed by Wieger Wamelink, a Senior Ecologist at Alterra. 

More Information:

This is an image of the red beans: on the left is the control earth soil, the middle is the Mars soil simulant under earth light conditions, and on the right is the Mars soil simulant under Martian light conditions. (Note the much bigger leaves under Martian light conditions.)

Experimental set up of the light experiment (Earth and Martian like) conducted by Wouter van As of the Norbertuscollege in Roosendaal high school. 

This is image shows the courgettes: on the left is the control earth soil, the middle is the Mars soil simulant under earth light conditions, and on the right is the Mars soil simulant under Martian light conditions. 

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