A team of scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands has successfully grown crops in synthetic Martian soil that are safe for human consumption. The team grew radishes, peas, rye wheat, and tomatoes that tested within range for any harmful substances, despite fears that they might contain dangerous elements like heavy metals.
The Martian soil simulant was developed by NASA and was specifically chosen to mimic Martian soil based on samples collected in past Mars expeditions. The simulated Martian dust is derived from volcanic ash taken from the Pu’u Nene cinder cone on the Island of Hawaii, a volcanic region of which the soil is a close analog to that found in the bright red regions of Mars.
According to the team’s recent publication in PLOS One, the ‘Martian’ soil outperformed Lunar soil and even some soil found on Earth:
The results show that plants are able to germinate and grow on both Martian and moon soil simulant for a period of 50 days without any addition of nutrients. Growth and flowering on Mars regolith simulant was much better than on moon regolith simulant and even slightly better than on our control nutrient poor river soil.
Some of the crops grown in Earth-based soil actually tested higher for levels of dangerous elements like lead, copper, and arsenic than the crops grown in Mars soil.
According to the study, these results thus far have been promising in terms of potential Mars colonization or even terraforming of the Red Planet:
Our results show that in principle it is possible to grow crops and other plant species in Martian and Lunar soil simulants. However, many questions remain about the simulants' water carrying capacity and other physical characteristics and also whether the simulants are representative of the real soils.
With no liquid water on the surface of Mars, Martian soil becomes the most abundant resource on the planet by default. The ability to harness any potential applications of Martian soil could make the fourth planet from the sun a much more attractive choice for future exploration or even the construction of labs or settlements. If astronauts can grow crops with minimal terraforming required, it could greatly increase the viability of Mars colonies.