Mars Exchange
Food for Mars: Green beans and potatoes

Food for Mars: Green beans and potatoes

by Natasha Schön on Tuesday, 19th July 2016 in Food for Mars, People, Wieger Wamelink

The first phase of the experiment is now well underway and the current main star is the green bean. One of the beautiful things about beans is that if they germinate (which is not always easy), they form a big plant with nice green leaves quite quickly. The germination on the Mars and moon simulant was excellent and often three out of three sown seeds germinated. Only one of the earth control pots showed no germination at all, and this pot was replaced by a spare. Part of the beans seemed to have an identity crisis. The package that they came from clearly stated low growing beans. Nevertheless, some of them are forming long shoots reaching out to Mars and the moon. We had to put a stick in each pot in order to support them. This also included the pots with plants that were not growing shoots, otherwise the sticks may influence the outcome of the experiment. At this moment, the beans are flowering abundantly and some of them have already small beans, whic means that the first harvest is imminent. Who will join us for dinner? This is the fifteenth 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. Make sure to read our earlier blog posts!

The potatoes
Not only the beans germinated, but the carrots, tomatoes and potatoes formed shoots as well! The seeds of the tomatoes germinated as well, resulting in several plants per pot. After a few weeks the strongest plant will be selected and the others will be cut. The same procedure will be applied to the carrots, although in this case we will have several plants per pot. The potatoes are looking pretty fine as well. When comparing the first shoots with the ones from the movie ‘The Martian’, they looked quite similar. Now that they have grown, they seem much bushier and the leaves are standing almost straight up. The first flowers from the potatoes have aleady arrived. However, we are more interested in what is happening belowground, but that will remain uncertain until the harvest. If they grow we will have one of the most energy rich crops we know available for the (human) Martians. Anyone in for a fry from Mars?

Thrips
The plants are generally growing very well, however we also have a problem. One of the most feared insects managed to enter the greenhouses; the thrips. These hard to see insects punch the leaves with a tiny sting and then suck the cell liquid out of our plants. Obviously, this slows the growth of the plants and influences our experiment. Both are unwanted. So we will fight the trips. Not with chemicals but with another small animal, a mite (Amblyseius swirskii; a spider with eight legs). They not only eat thrips, but also some other unwanted insects such as the red spider mite or whitefly. It shows again that when we will go to Mars, we have to be very careful not to bring any diseases. The results may be catastrophic and flying in mites may take at least three quarters of a year.

AFP
The French press agency AFP visited us in the greenhouse. They made a beautiful movie, which was, amongst others, broadcasted by RTL. There was more footage in many French newspapers worldwide. My French is very rusty but they happily dubbed and translated everything. At the end of June, the Dutch children program The World in 2050 will come to film the whole growing process, from growing plants to analysing them for heavy metals. 

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Story contributed by Wieger Wamelink, a Senior Ecologist at Alterra (Twitter: Wamelink_wieger).

More Information:

Green beans on Mars soil simulant.

Flowering green bean on Mars soil simulant.

First green beans on Mars soil simulant. On the bottom right bran flakes wiht mite, they have to ‘control’ the thrips.

The box of the mite used to fight the thrips. 

The first flowering potato on Mars soil simulant.

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