As glorious as it would be to live upon another moon, planet or asteroid, the reality is that most of the 83 spheres that dance around our Sun are far too radioactive to raise plants upon without heavy shielding.
However a recent discovery by scientists near Chernobyl may help us not only raise radiation resistant crops off world, but also enable us to transport grain throughout the solar system.
Radioactivity lingering in the soil near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident has not prevented life from creeping back at the Ukrainian site. Now researchers have discovered that oil-rich flax plants grown in the highly radioactive soil can apparently adapt and thrive with few problems.
The first generation survived with changes in barely 5 percent of the plant proteins, and researchers have also collected results from a second generation of flax grown in a radioactive plot of land near Chernobyl. But a mystery remains as to how the flax – a source of plant fiber and dietary oil – has adapted biochemically to the highly radioactive environment. Either way, researchers have been surprised to see that “the radioactive Chernobyl area is not a desert, but is full of life,” according to Martin Hajduch, senior scientist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology. (Astrobiology Magazine)
If scientists can find a way to port the genes of these resistant plants into other crops (i.e. wheat, barely, or a few fruit trees), then humans will be able to raise food upon worlds like Mars without having to resort to expensive shielding.
Future settlers however will still have to import terrestrial fertilizer (or create their own) in order to raise gardens as the soil upon select worlds like the Moon as well as Mars is far too radioactive or toxic for terrestrial life.
Image: Soybean plant growing in radioactive soil, Credit: M. Hajduch