Alfalfa plants, an important forage crop grown in many parts of the world, can survive in tough volcanic soil like the one covering Mars and could be used as fertiliser to grow food like turnips and radishes on the Red Planet, according to a new study.
The low nutrient content of Martian soil and high salinity of water make it suitable for the direct cultivation of food crops on Mars, say scientists, including those from Iowa State University in the US.
“It is therefore essential to develop strategies to enhance nutrient content in Mars soil and to desalinate briny water for long-term missions,” they wrote in the study, published last week in the journal PLOS One.
The new research found that alfalfa could grow as healthily in simulated martian soil as it does in Earth soil, without the need for additional fertilisers.
When they added alfalfa as a fertiliser, scientists could then successfully grow turnips, radishes and lettuces on the simlated Red Planet soil.
These three plants, scientists said, require very little maintenance can grow quickly with the help of some fresh water.
“For the first time, we report an integrated use of a biofertilizer and microbe for effective treatment of basaltic regolith soil and briny water simulants, respectively, for suitable resources that sustain plant growth,” scientists wrote in the study.
They said the salty water available on Mars could be treated using marine bacteria and filtered using volcanic rocks to produce fresh water.
While in further studies researchers hope to assess how helpful alfalfa can be as a fertiliser to grow other crops, it is unclear to what extent simulated martian soil is similar to the real one.
Scientists said the simulated soil did not have any amounts of toxic perchlorate salts naturally present on Mars.
They said this chemical would need to be cleared off from the soil on Mars using desalinated water before it is used for cultivating crops.
“This study signifies that for long-term purposes, it is possible to treat in situ soil and water resources for farming on Mars to sustain human missions and permanent settlements,” researchers added.
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