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Be Ready to Eat the Fruits and Vegetables from Mars

Chander Mohan
Chander Mohan

Can you imagine what type of fruits and vegetables shall be there on the surface of the Mars?  The growing global population is increasing the demand for food and to meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment. 

The main challenge faced by scientists who are racing to send man where no man has gone before is that of human survival. It would take around six months to make the journey to Mars, and the technology required to protect the astronauts from the lethal levels of radiation they would be exposed to be yet to be developed. In addition to this, although some advancement have been made in identifying ways to extract water from the planet’s arid landscape, and even grow vegetables in the soil, we are still far from being able to sustain human life on Mars for any period of time. That said, with the best minds in the world working on putting man on the red planet, maybe we’re not so far from holidays that are out of this world! 

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection. 

So ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth. Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighboring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways. 

The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide. 

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith.  This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals  that are toxic to humans. 

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃. Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars. 

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions. A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry. 

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions. With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade. 

This includes improving photosynthesis and photo protection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality. These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology. Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth. 

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