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MARSCROP - Growing green on the Red Planet

Posted 18 August, 2023

Ireland's first space genomics project could lead to the surface of Mars becoming fit for farming.

Newly funded research led by University College Dublin is seeking to harnessed microbes in plant root systems to allow for the production of safe and nutritious food using Martian soil.

With an atmosphere almost a 100 times thinner than Earth’s, half its sunlight, no accessible fresh water, and an averaging temperature of -62 degrees Celsius, Mars provides a challenging environment when it comes to safeguarding the health and metabolism of any would be settlers.

Among the difficulties in growing food on the red planet is that its soil lacks nutrients and contains contaminants, which are toxic to humans and most plants.

The MARSCROP project is exploring the use of "phytoremediating” plants and root-associated bacteria to help overcome these challenges by mitigating this soil toxicity and capturing nutrients.

Phytoremediation is an eco-friendly means to clean up toxic soils using naturally resilient plants.

“Food production is a key priority in current space life sciences research as we return to the moon and prepare for longer duration space missions,” said Stefania Sabau, a UCD Ad Astra and European Space Agency PhD student working on the project.

“One of the ideas we’re excited to explore in the MARSCROP project is whether the complex natural solutions which have evolved on earth could be harnessed to help overcome some of the challenges of space exploration, such as by using highly contaminant resistant non-food crops and their associated microbiome.”

Sustainable food production is expected to be one of the critical factors in maintaining a human presence off Earth. By co-cropping contaminant tolerant phytoremediation crops, such as fast-growing willow, alongside food crops, the team hopes to benefit from each crop's distinct capabilities to allow for safe and nutritious food production.

The international collaboration includes researchers from UCD, University of Montreal, McGill University, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We are thrilled to use cutting-edge ‘meta’-genomic sequencing and advanced big data analysis techniques pioneered by the MARSCROP team. These innovations should allow us to characterise complex plant microbiome communities and provide invaluable insight that could help safeguard astronaut health,” said Dr Emmanuel Gonzalez, Leader of the Microbiome Unit at the Canadian Centre for Computational Genomics and the McGill Centre for Microbiome Research.

The project receives joint funding through the European Space Agency’s 'Open Space Innovation Platform' and the UCD Ad Astra program, with support from partners including Talam Biotech, a phytoremediation company at NovaUCD, and Flynn’s tomatoes (MF Nurseries), Ireland's preeminent tomato grower. The Canadian Space Agency has also committed funding, fostering a collaborative cross-agency space initiative.

Anthropogenic soil contamination is also thought to impact over 2.8 million sites around Europe, representing a risk to the environment and human heath. The systems developed by MARSCROP will have positive implications beyond Mars as the insights generated by the project will be applied to enable future research into sustainable agriculture and the reduction of contamination in soils and water in Ireland and across the globe.

“Cultivating plants in space, whether on the moon or the Marian surface, might initially appear far-fetched. However, food is already being produced on the ISS and, as Lunar exploration advances alongside the Artemis missions, developing crop growth solutions is becoming critical in preparing for a crewed mission to Mars,” said said Project Lead Dr (opens in a new window)Nicholas Brereton, Ad Astra Fellow at the UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science.

“Closer to home, improving our understanding of plant microbiome functionality and developing innovative biotechnologies holds the potential to both support Ireland’s agricultural future as well as protect Earth's environment.”

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie