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Will Martian cuisine have a terrifying surprise?

Mars One has launched a project to put humans on Mars by cutting out one of the biggest costs of the mission. Putting a human into space is easy. A lot of expense is cut out if you don’t plan to bring them back alive.

The target first launch is 2016. It’s highly ambitious and it’s no surprise that many people think this will not happen. The project does seem to depend on people giving a large amount of money to the project very quickly. My concern was a throwaway line in the press conference, that the colonists would grow their own food. Mars One currently has 80,000 applicants. So far, the number of successful offworld farms less than one. Growing food is not a solved problem. If humans are going to move off-planet, then botanists will have to find edible life on another planet, even if they have to put it there themselves.

A rust red combine harvester running over rust coloured wheat against an orange sky.
Farming the Red Planet might be more difficult than some people think. Photo: Jan Tik.

There is ongoing research into the problem. Gene Giacomelli has a prototype lunar greenhouse. The greenhouse doesn’t look that the big domed greenhouses of pulp sci-fi. It’s built to work underground, and there’s plenty of underground on earth that could use it too. Even if you don’t have your greenhouse underground, it could still be in the shade in an urban environment. You don’t have to travel to another world for real world applications.

The early settlement of Mars might be the salad days of colonisation, but what will go in that salad?

Another thing that bothering me is that plants evolved to work in 1g. Mars is around one-third of Earth. How will this affect the physiology of the plants? It’s the kind of puzzle that you’d want to solve on the Moon first. If something went wrong you’d want the nearest pizza delivery to be a few days, not the months on Mars. While no one has experimented in low gravity, there is research from microgravity. The botanist’s favourite plant, Arabidopsis, has been to the International Space Station.

If you’re wondering what the research looks like by the time it gets into print, you can read Cytochemical Localization of Reserves during Seed Development in Arabidopsis thaliana under Spaceflight Conditions by Anxiu Juang et al. for free at the Annals of Botany. The paper reports on a few Arabidopsis plants went up on STS-68, and it seems they were perfectly happy. The same team later published Influence of Microgravity on Ultrastructure and Storage Reserves in Seeds of Brassica rapa L., which you can also read free at Annals of Botany. For Brassica rapa L., a relative of the turnip, these results weren’t so positive, with seed quality suffering in orbit. Another report, in the Journal of Experimental Botany (and free access at the time of writing) Ultrastructure of potato tubers formed in microgravity under controlled environmental conditions by Cook and Croxdale found that space potato tubers were indistinguishable from their earth-bound relatives.

It is possible that the inhabitants of future worlds may get the pleasure of potatoes but never know the joy of digging up a turnip in an amusing shape. This has consequences. The colonists won’t just have to cope with the lack of a breathable atmosphere outside, and the isolation from their families. They might also face a life without Cornish pasties.* I’d like to travel to space, but some sacrifices are simply too great.

* Cornish pasty is a geographically protected term. Any pasty made on Mars, which is between 55 and 250 million kilmetres away from Cornwall, won’t legally be a Cornish pasty.

Photo: Terraforming by Jan Tik. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by licence.

May 19: Edited to change the title after it was pointed out re-writes meant secret was the wrong word. It’s now surprise.


FoPDWe’re celebrating Fascination of Plants Day today on AoB Blog. As the day progresses these links will become live:

  • 09:00: Welcome to Fascination of Plants Day
    What is Fascination of Plants Day? And more importantly, what happens when you pull apart a cell with lasers?
  • 13:00: What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz
    A review of the book that reveals how a plant senses its environment. It reveals how a plant can ‘see’ by sensing light, or how it can ‘talk’ to other plants. But is it fascinating?
  • 17:00: Will Martian cuisine have a terrifying secret?
    You’ve just read this. Nip down to Greggs (or nearest local equivalent) to get a pasty WHILE YOU STILL CAN!
  • 21:00: 10 Plants used to spice up sex
    Spice is a bit of a give-away that some plants have been used as aphrodisiacs but you might be surprised at what common plants have been used to ignite desire.
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