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Food for Mars: New Year’s Musings from Behind the Desk

Food for Mars: New Year’s Musings from Behind the Desk

by Natasha Schön on Friday, 8th January 2016 in Food for Mars, People, Wieger Wamelink

It is the last day of 2015, and 2016 is knocking on the door, the period of the year for flashbacks (with Mark Watney – the hero of the movie ‘The Martian ’ which features plants being grown on Mars by a stranded astronaut) and future plans. The highlight of last year was undisputedly the ripe tomatoes on Mars soil simulant and all the ‘fuss’ about it. However, of at least equal importance, were the first tomatoes grown on the moon soil simulant, although partly due to the movie the Martian, this got less publicity. The most important task for next year is starting the crowdfunding campaign, since there is still a lot to be done before we can follow in the footsteps of Mark Watney. This is the special New Year 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 10 blog posts below!

2015 was the year of small scale experiments with nine trays and ten different crops and of course three different soils: Mars soil simulant from Hawaii provided by NASA, moon soil simulant from an Arizonian desert also provided by NASA, and Earth compost provided by the local gardening centre ‘Welkoop’ (not a sponsor). The Welkoop (really, not a sponsor) also delivered the seeds for the crops like garden cress, rocket (yes!), radish, peas, and the cherry tomatoes. The seeds of the rye where left over from the first experiment, back in 2013, but they performed brilliantly. New this year, besides the trays, was that we added cut grass as organic manure to the soil which had stunning effects. Everything, except the sad looking spinach (sorry Popeye), grew remarkably well. We harvested significant quantities of radishes, rocket, cress, rye and of course tomatoes. We ate none of it though because we still do not know if it is safe to do so. This is because the heavy metals that are present in the soils may also have accumulated in the harvested crops.

2016 will be the year that we want an answer to that question, so heavy metal analyses of the harvest are definitely on the to do list. And hopefully we will win a small budget for a recently published call for proposals to do analyses on plant dissolved substances with a mass spectrometer (call from Zon MW, so fingers crossed). We will investigate if there are differences in plant dissolved substances due to the Mars and moon soil simulants compared to the Earth soil. If all outcomes are positive, i.e. there are no heavy metals or toxic molecules present in the harvest, then we anticipate the first ‘Mars meal’ this year. Do you dare to join us for this dinner? (Mind you, if all our readers say yes there probably won’t be too much to go around!) Moreover, a part of the harvested seeds will be used for germination experiments. If they will germinate and grow then we have accomplished a full life cycle on the soil, indicating that, in principle, continuous growth of crops is possible. Then we will finally start with the worm experiment; are they able to survive in the soils and breakdown the harvest from 2015 so it becomes available for the bacteria, which can break down the organic matter further and release the nutrients for the plants? That would close another essential circle for continuous plant growth.

The experiment in 2015 ‘officially’ only cost €500 and generated far more than one million worth of publicity in the media. Many people contributed as volunteers, including the people from the greenhouse, and I would like to thank them all. But we cannot go on like this. We would like to continue our efforts since the future Mark Watneys will have to eat and if possible also something other than potatoes. So, at the beginning of 2016 (January?), we will start a crowdfunding campaign to finance further research. Funders will be invited to visit the greenhouse, there are small gifts, and for those who dare there may be an invitation for the first ‘Mars- or moon meal’ ever.

We wish you a spacy (and spicy) 2016!

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

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