Class modifies soil, other variables to simulate growing plants on Mars

by Joe Wyatt
Published November 12, 2018

Research well underway in the new greenhouse at Amarillo College is simply out of this world.


Students in Monali Patil’s Introduction to Horticulture class are attempting to replicate the soil and atmospheric conditions on Mars in order to grow green vegetables in a reasonable facsimile of the red planet’s harsh environment.


“We prepare our own soil with different chemical compositions, similar to what you would find on Mars,” Monali, an instructor of biological sciences, said. “The research focuses on growing plants in Martian soil with several variables – CO2, temperature, lighting conditions.


“Mars soil doesn’t contain organic matter, so it’s very difficult to grow plants in that,” she said. “We have to play with the soil, but everyone is enjoying it a lot. It’s a very interesting topic of research right now, a good stepping stone for undergraduate researchers.”


The Mars curriculum is particularly intriguing for students because it brings to mind the 2015 blockbuster movie “The Martian” – in which Matt Damon’s character, who is stranded on Mars, uses his wits to grow and survive long term on potatoes.


“We’re like, can we replicate that if by chance we had to go to Mars and try to live there?” Bri Ehrlich, a horticulture major, said. “We’re trying it with beans at the moment just because they grow so quickly.


“We are on trial number three – the first two died within a week or two of planting, so this one’s going on for about a month now. We’re getting much better at it.”


The class also has incorporated aspects of hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics into the research curriculum, methods of horticulture that do not use soil and can be established in cold, severe conditions.


The atmosphere of Mars is about 95 percent carbon dioxide, extremely cold and lacking most of the sunlight of Earth; however, the greenhouse within AC’s new STEM Research Center is equipped to simulate such extreme conditions.


Cutting-edge equipment is readily evident throughout the Center. The student researchers have at their disposal such high-tech apparatuses as a CO2 chamber, a photosynthesis analyzer, a fluorescence microscope for live cell imaging, and a gas chromatograph for analysis of soil and plant chemicals, just to name a few.


“We have a state-of-the-art greenhouse facility,” Monali said. “We can manage different temperatures, and we have high LED lighting so we can use different light beams to grow our plants.


“The conversion of carbon dioxide into glucose through photosynthesis is a big challenge for growing plants on Mars. But stage by stage we are trying to do some experiments and we are getting some returns.”


Monali says Mars-related horticultural research is trending thanks to the efforts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is determined to improve the human habitability of the International Space Station and beyond.


NASA’s Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE) uses hydroponic technology aboard the space station to provide future pioneers with a sustainable food supplement – “a critical part of NASA’s journey to Mars,” Monali said.


“As NASA moves toward long-duration exploration missions farther into the solar system, VEGGIE will be a resource for crew food growth and consumption,” she said. “It also could be used by astronauts for recreational gardening activities during deep space missions.”


And, as with all basic research, an improved understanding of plant growth and development has important implications for improving plant production on Earth.