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Interview: Dutch researcher says Earth food plants able to grow on Mars

English.news.cn   2014-01-17 06:14:15

by Jesse Wieten

THE HAGUE, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- The cultivation of various plant species, also food plants, is possible on soil of planet Mars, ecologist Wieger Wamelink of the Dutch research institute Alterra of Wageningen University told Xinhua recently.

Researchers investigated whether it is possible to grow different types of plants in the soil of Mars and on the moon. They did an experiment with 14 plant species on artificial Martian and lunar soil, provided by NASA. The experiment lasted 50 days.

"The outcome was quite a big surprise," said Wamelink. "Some species such as rye and cress were already sprouting within 24 hours. Eventually plants on Mars soil were even blossoming. We we fertilized them with a brush, with some even seeding. It was exciting to watch. Tomato plants were growing and carrot plants even had small carrots, cress formed seeds."

A total of 840 pots were planted with 4,200 seeds. Mars and moon sand, supplied by NASA, so-called regolith, is the best possible imitation of real Mars and moon sand. The basis for this is volcanic soil of Hawaii and sand from Arizona.

"We did not know what would happen when we added water to the soil. What turned out is that the Martian soil holds water well, while the moon sand did not."

All plants germinated in the Martian soil. The seeds of agricultural crops such as rye and cress germinated best, some wild plants germinated a lot worse.

After 50 days in the greenhouse, a large proportion of the plants were still alive. Compared to the nutrient-poor river sands of the Rhine from 10 meters deep layers, the plants did even better in the Martian soil.

Lunar soil did not prove fruitful. The germination was significantly less and the growth of all species was much worse. Many germinated plants died before the end of the experiment on moon soil. In addition, the crops did relatively poorly, but after 50 days a few plants were still alive like rye, carrot, cress, reflexed stonecrop and red fescue.

"There are a few reasons for the poor performance on the moon, besides that it does not hold water well," said Wamelink.

"We send the sand to our lab. Moon sand contains aluminum, which is poisonous for plants. In addition, the soil pH (acidity) is too high. There is not enough acid in the soil. But it would certainly be possible to grow plants on the moon. Only you have to manipulate the sand. This could be done by planting some specific plants absorbing the aluminum from the soil. And acidity can be easily lowered by adding acid."

With the results of the pilot in the pocket, Wamelink hopes his research group can continue with the experiment. "We want to know more," he said.

"What is the effect of gravity? This differs on Mars, the moon and Earth. How do plants respond to it? What about light? Mars is darker than Earth. Although the days have the same length, Mars is farther away from the sun. What about the colors of light? They are different on Mars. We also want to make the soil more suitable, by adding nutrients."

"We want to see when the plants are safe to eat," the ecologist said. "In the next phase, we want to grow a tomato. We want to see if it is possible to yield enough to feed people."

The project was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Wamelink expects people to move and stay at the moon within 10 to 15 years.

"If you go there and want to do research, you should try to grow your own food, fresh food," he said.

"That saves a lot of extra costs. Mars will take more time, with a one-way journey of more than six months to get there. I am 47 years old and do not want to go to Mars, but I would definitely like to go to the moon and back. It will take time, but eventually humans will grow food on the moon and Mars. It's good to know that you do not need to carry sand with you."

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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