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UF researchers are working on greenhouses that could allow plants to be grown on the Martian surface

Published: June 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Rob Ferl

Rob Ferl

Professor of Molecular Biology
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

It may take decades to put the first human footprint on the surface of Mars – but UF researcher Rob Ferl has a plan to send life from Earth to the Red Planet much sooner.

Ferl is director of UF’s NASA-affiliated Center for Space Agriculture and Biotechnology Research and Education (also known as SABRE), a program dedicated to finding ways to get plants to survive the rigors of spaceflight. He and his colleagues are working on greenhouses that could allow plants to grow on the surface of Mars.

Large-scale greenhouses are likely to be part of any manned mission to the Red Planet, where they would provide astronauts with food, water and oxygen. But small-scale greenhouses, designed to test the soil of Earth’s nearest neighbor, could find their way onto a Mars lander as early as the next decade.

“Wherever humans go, they’re going to have to take their plants with them,” said Ferl, a professor of molecular biology at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “In the case of Mars, it’s probably the plants that will arrive first.”

Ferl and his SABRE colleagues have already launched plenty of botanical astronauts, sending plant experiments on shuttle missions to determine how spaceflight affects plant metabolism and reproduction. Their research may lead to genetically-engineered crops designed to thrive in the low-pressure greenhouses that would likely be part of a long-term base on Mars or the Earth’s Moon.

Ferl is confident crops will be grown on both celestial bodies in the future. It’s just a question of when, he says. “Under the right conditions it only takes a few square meters of growing area to provide enough food to support a single person,” Ferl said. “There are still plenty of technical obstacles to overcome, but this is something we can and will do.”

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