By: April Carson
Scientists have figured out how to grow plants on Mars. They added symbiotic bacteria and nutrients, which helped them form nodules with more biomass than expected! While scientists were able to successfully create artificial soil for this experiment in space exploration they did not achieve their initial goal of enriching it with nitrogen gas.
How can future colonists produce their own food on Mars?
The roots of leguminous plants (including sweet clover) form specific nodules where symbiont bacteria from the Rhizobiaceae family live. These bugs fix atmospheric nitrogen, that is they convert gaseous-nitrogen into an easily assimilated amonia for use by other plant life; as a result you'll find your garden does better and its soil enriched with more available nutrients!
The development of legumes could help colonize Mars, since the Martian regolith is insufficient. However it's unknown whether this symbiosis will work in a soil environment with low levels or no nutrients. Franklin Harris and his colleagues at University Colorado decided to test if melilot would grow on artificial ground for their experiment; they placed some seeds from Earthly plants into containers filled with dirt made from forged iron sand mixed together as well depleted potting soils and added water until there were about 20 milliliters per square centimeter (volume). They put these inside an incubator box where everything was kept cool between 15°C and 25°C.
The model soil used in the experiment bears a designation which is named after Mars, Mojave Mars Simulant. It was developed by specialists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory using data collected via spectral observations of surface terrain on this planet as well as landing missions that were undertaken primarily by Viking probes and Spirit rovers or Opportunity
themselves - among others.
Artificial regolith is made from American Mojave Desert basalt sand. It's composed of 50% silicon dioxide and 10% iron oxide. Melilot sprouts were cultivated under ideal circumstances in a greenhouse, where they received 25-30 degrees Celsius and regular moisture.
Ten shoots in the imitation of Martian regolith were treated with a culture of bacteria Sinorhizobium melioti that form a legume-rhizobial symbiosis with melilot and five more were left untouched after two weeks. For comparison, the same experiment was conducted using soil intended for plant growth. The researchers removed the plants after three months, measured their weight and number of nodules, and assessed the soil's composition.
The roots of sweet clover in the regolith, nodules were successfully formed though less than Earth's soil (on average 14.5 per plant versus 63). It could be limited by high pH and low availability iron which is part an enzyme that fixes nitrogen; these nutrients are not available for plants to use due their acidic nature so they form around it instead (nodule).
It turns out that the bacteria in Mars' soil are still working to help plants grow. The nodules of these friendly microorganisms contain more protein than what is produced by roots on their own, which means they can almost feed entire communities with just one single plant! That said though-- without these helpful microbes our favorite Martian bearers would have had a hard time making sure there were enough nutrients for all those tiny organisms living among its roots... until now!
This is due to the fact that in poor soil, the plants consumed all available nitrogen both formed by bacteria and present in the soil. There is, however, a solution to this issue that will enable Mars explorers to cultivate plants successfully. In farm production, legumes are commonly employed as "green fertilizers," being plowed into the ground where the bacteria colonize the roots and use atmospheric nitrogen, which they create themselves.
This exciting discovery has us envisioning future Mars colonists having their own personal pets to feed and water and care for and we will not be the only ones excited about this! And if we become too attached, we can easily genetically engineer them to be more or less food-y to our liking.
According to the study's hypothesis, long-term legume cultivation and plowing into the ground would still be able to add enough nitrogen to Martian dirt for plants to thrive.
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