Alfalfa could be the answer to agriculture on Mars

Alfalfa could be the answer to agriculture on Mars

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Study with the application of alfalfa in the soil may enable agriculture on Mars22

In the 2015 film The Martian, the stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon managed to survive thanks to a potato crop he grew with the help of an unsavory ingredient: the waste left behind by his crewmates. But real-life Martian astronauts may be able to grow their own food with the help of a nicer ingredient: alfalfa, according to peer-reviewed research published in the journal PLOS One.

The experiment was the brainchild of 19-year-old Pooja Kasiviswanathan, who was in her sophomore year of high school when she began her research into the development of food systems on Mars. She built her research over three years, finishing it during her senior year of high school. Now a third-year microbiology student at Iowa State University, she continues to explore this research in other ways.

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Funded by Dr. Vijayapalani Paramasivan – a scientist at ISU (Iowa State University) – part of the research explored how turnips grow in Martian soil, simulated from a derivative of volcanoes called basaltic regolith soil, compared to regular garden soil. Unsurprisingly, garden soil was a better bet for growing food: it had more nutrients and other properties than “Martian” soil. But when watered with fresh water, the turnip seeds in the simulated soil germinated 7% more than in the garden soil, although the plants grew in a stunted and much more unhealthy way compared to the garden soil.

These results mean that future astronauts will need some sort of fertilizer to grow crops on Mars. According to Kasiviswanathan, alfalfa has long been used as a biofertilizer on Earth. Therefore, the research was carried out with the cultivation of turnips, radishes and lettuce in “Martian” soil, in which alfalfa watered with fresh water was also cultivated. Alfalfa-based soil treatment showed exponential growth in all three plants: turnips had a 190% increase in growth, radish biomass increased by 311%, and lettuce leaf biomass increased by 79%, compared to untreated simulated soil.

“The main idea behind this project is to be able to integrate two simulated Martian conditions, analyze the effect of those conditions on plant growth, and provide treatments for sustainable plant growth,” Kasiviswanathan told Forbes.

Next, plants were tested in the same soil, but this time using biodesalinated salt water – water in which salt and other minerals were removed using bacteria in this process. This was an important step because salt and minerals can impede plant growth. But on the first try, the turnips didn’t do so well, so the two researchers filtered the bacteria using volcanic rocks. Turnips and radishes grown with the filtered water had an increase in growth of 278% of dry weight and 1047% of fresh weight, respectively.

One caveat to this study is that the simulated Martian soil did not include perchlorate, a type of salt found on Mars. “Perchlorate hinders the growth of cultivated plants”, acknowledges Kasiviswanathan. “When you initially grow plants in soil with no nutrient supply, they may not grow as well because there is a deficiency in certain available nutrients,” she adds. “So perchlorate can be harmful to plant growth initially.”

This isn’t the first time scientists have simulated Martian soil to try to grow food. A paper published in 2019 described 10 different plants (quinoa, radish, watercress, leeks, tomatoes, rye, peas, spinach, chives and arugula) grown on land that simulated Martian soil and moon soil. What is known is that all but one had significant growth (sorry Popeye, but spinach failed to do well).

During a 2017 study by The International Potato Center in conjunction with NASA’s Ames Research Center, researchers tested whether potatoes could grow in simulated Mars conditions on a small satellite. The experiment was a success and concluded that any future missions involving growing potatoes on Mars need to prepare the soil with a loose structure and added nutrients.

But not all space researchers are betting that trying to grow a farm on Martian soil will be a fruitful endeavor. According to Kevin Cannon, assistant professor of Geology and Geological Engineering/Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, the ISU research may be behind schedule.

“We will certainly take plants with us as we expand into space, and this paper develops some creative approaches to altering the regolith on Mars as a growth medium,” he said. “However, on Earth we are already starting to move away from the paradigm of producing food by growing it in the ground. Making food in space will primarily involve chemical engineering and cellular agriculture, leaving plants to play a more aesthetic and psychological role.”

That doesn’t stop Kasiviswanathan, however, who says he has plans to continue testing as far as this project can go. For the future, she wants to test different simulation conditions as well as new crops such as beans and grains.

“In this project, we were able to sustainably grow plants in two simulated Martian conditions. We are the first to develop these strategies,” she says. “We decided it’s best to go step by step and analyze the effect of certain Martian conditions on plant growth, one at a time.”

* Arianna Johnson is a contributor to Forbes USA and a fellow at the Forbes HBCU (Historically Black College and University), a training program for black journalists. She holds a degree in “Mass Media Arts” with an emphasis in journalism from Clark Atlanta University.

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