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Could Salad be the Key to Human Colonisation of Mars?

Ross Kelly

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Mars

A project led by the Royal Horticultural Society has shed light on how seeds react to space travel. 

Salad seeds could hold the key to growing food on another planet, according to a recently-published study.

The findings come after British astronaut Tim Peake’s Principia mission, which saw two kilograms of rocket seeds spend six months on board the International Space Station (ISS).

During the mission, which began in December 2015, the seeds absorbed up to 100 times more radiation than on Earth and were subjected to intense vibrations from the stresses of space travel.

When the seeds returned to Earth in 2016, more than half a million children from schools and community groups across the UK planted them and monitored their growth. The seeds were then compared to those which had remained on Earth.

The project, called Rocket Science, was led by the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Campaign for School Gardening in partnership with the UK Space Agency. In total, 8,600 schools and groups took part in the controlled study and documented their results.

The data showed that the space seeds grew only slightly slower when brought back to Earth, but were more sensitive to ageing.

Despite challenging conditions, however, the seeds still remained viable, which suggests that steps could be taken to protect them on a future journey to a distant planet.

Long-term, they could be used to grow plants in space or on another planet for explorers to use as a food source.

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Professor Gerhard Leubner and Dr Jake Chandler, both from the Department of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, led the research along with Professor Alistair Griffiths from the RHS. The research findings have been published in the journal Life.

Dr Chandler said: “Transporting high-quality seeds to space and beyond will be crucial for growing plants that support human exploration of space, Mars and other worlds.

“Our study found that a six-month journey to space reduced the vigour of rocket seeds compared to those that stayed on Earth, indicating that spaceflight accelerated the ageing process.

“Thus, while we should carefully consider protecting seeds from potentially harmful factors including space radiation and mechanical vibration, the seeds remained alive, and the prospect of eating home-grown salad on Mars may be one small step closer.”

Commenting on the research findings, Tim Peake said: “In one of the largest and most inspirational experiments of its kind, more than half a million young people collected reliable data to help the scientists at Royal Holloway investigate the effects of spaceflight on rocket seeds.

“When humans travel to Mars, they will need to find ways to feed themselves, and this research helps us understand some of the biology of seed storage and germination which will be vital for future space missions.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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