In the 2015 sci-fi movie The Martian, Matt Damon is abandoned on Mars and forced to farm his own food to sustain himself while Earth arranges a rescue.
The concept might sound outlandish, but it turns out that growing potatoes on the Red Planet is more science fact than fiction. The International Potato Center has research showing that tubers are able to grow under Mars' atmospheric conditions.
In 2016, engineers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima built a specially-constructed CubeSat that replicated Martian conditions. Temperature, air pressure, oxygen, CO2 and light levels are all controlled within a hermetically sealed container, monitored by sensors and live-streaming cameras.
At the centre of the container, a potato seed was planted in a soil similar to that found on Mars and fed with nutrient-rich water. Here's a timelapse video of what happened next:
"It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," potato breeder Walter Amoros, who worked on the experiment. He found that the best-performing varieties were those adapted towards subtropical lowlands.
"Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment," said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute. "If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars."
"We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive."
What's more, the results could have positive implications for those of us remaining on Earth. "The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working," said Amoros.