LIMA - Scientists at Peru's International Potato Center, or CIP, are working on a project to explore the possibility of growing potatoes on Mars.
The idea for the project came from researcher Julio Valdivia, who is conducting studies for NASA and found that the soil in an area in southern Peru is very similar to that of Mars, biologist David Ramirez told EFE.
The area is a desert in La Joya, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Arequipa, where the soil is poor in nutrients, with a high salt content and as arid as on Mars, Ramirez said.
In addition to the soil's features, the project took off because Peru is Latin America's leading producer of potatoes, with 4.7 million tons of the tuber grown annually.
Peru has classified more than 4,000 native varieties of potatoes and the CIP keeps 4,500 varieties of potatoes and 7,000 varieties of "camote," or sweet potato, at its facilities, making it the world's largest collection.
Researchers have already identified genotypes for testing "improved variations" of some potatoes, and the next step will be to place the genotypes in controlled environments to observe their growth, the CIP's Jan Kreuze said.
The CIP says scientists need to find genotypes of potatoes "tolerant to periods of heat, cold and drought" for Mars.
The project is being financed by an anonymous donor, but NASA is providing logistical support to the CIP by designing nursery chambers that simulate conditions on Mars.
"There are two proposals. One is to bring samples of desert soil to the CIP and another is to grow potatoes there and see how they perform," Kreuze said.
After the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire in the 16th century, the Andean potato reached Spain and its consumption spread across Europe, helping prevent starvation for centuries.
The potato plant can adapt to regions where water is scarce and labor is abundant, providing nutrition, while requiring less land and enduring harsher conditions than any other staple crop.
In Ridley Scott's "The Martian," the main character, played by Matt Damon, is able to grow potatoes on Mars, and now scientists at the CIP are working to make the scene a reality.