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Martian Menu: How to grow food on another planet

As scientists look above with dreams of human settlements on Mars, research is underway into growing food on alien worlds.

The University of Southern Queensland is helping pave the way for manned expeditions to the Red Planet by utilising the expertise of Australian crop health scientists.

Ecologist Dr Adam Frew researches sustainable plant production, including how crops respond to environmental change – and, unsurprisingly, said growing food in space is quite the challenge.

“The microbiome of a plant on Earth is made up of all sorts of bacteria and fungi, mainly around the roots, providing vital nutrients,” Dr Frew said.

“But in microgravity, plants may struggle to establish that delicate balance of thousands of micro-organisms.”

Dr Frew’s research has shown what can happen when this balance is out of whack - not only failing to produce yield, but also disarming its defences against harmful pests and diseases.

His team is looking into producing synthetic or constructed microbiomes that could be seeded onto plants.

“These are made of real bacteria and fungi, but the composition has been selected to foster growth and health in a particular plant for a specific environment,” Dr Frew said.

“We’re in discussions with NASA because we’re doing that kind research for different plants in various environments right here on Earth.

“The theory is you give plants the synthetic microbiome that will enable them to produce more antioxidant chemicals and are therefore healthier to eat and don’t contain harmful bacteria.”

University of Southern Queensland crop health scientists, including molecular biologist Lauren Huth, are making use of the UniSQ Institute for Life Sciences and the Environment’s research facilities in this technology.

“We can use the latest robotic and DNA sequencing technology to rapidly search for these unique combinations of microorganisms to support plant and human health – both at home and amongst the stars,” Mrs Huth said.

Learn more about UniSQ research into crop health.

Plants surrounded by equipment
Radish plants growing aboard the International Space Station. (Credit NASA)