Spirulina: the superfood of future Mars colonies?

Chase Bishop, winner of the 2016 NCSAS science fair has done it again with his new research project exploring the possibility of growing spirulina on Mars. Bishop has been fascinated with the idea of human settlement on Mars throughout his high school education, and it turns out he’s pretty good at coming up with innovative yet simple projects to explore the possibility.

Last year, Chase Bishop and his partner James Thompson, both high school freshmen from North Carolina took on a project to re-invent how power could be produced on Mars. They won the grand prize in North Carolina’s TIME program and were inducted into the American Junior Academy of Science.

This year, with new partner Alex Eberhardt by his side, Bishop has explored the possibility of spirulina, a high protein ‘superfood’, becoming an effective food source for sustaining long term life on the red planet.

In light of the fact that water is a rare commodity on Mars, future colonies will need nutritionally dense food that doesn’t require much water to thrive. Spirulina is a cyanobacteria with those qualities. Bishop and Eberhardt decided to see if they could mimic Martian regolith conditions to grow spirulina by hydrating it with urine. That’s right, urine.

By varying elements of Martian soil and urine to gauge any differences in results, the boys were able to determine the optimal growth pattern. The results showed that spirulina is, in fact, a great candidate for a food source for Martian colonists. The elements of zinc and iron contained in Martian regolith in combination with the high concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus in human urine make the conditions viable for growth.

There was one hiccup in the results, however. All test samples that had been fertilised with urine experience lysis, a breakdown of their cell structure. This happens quite often in lab experiments, but it does mean that further research is needed to determine the long term viability of spirulina as a part of a martian diet.

The project won Bishop and Eberhardt first place at the NCSAS science fair again this year. The two high school students are also planning to attend the AAAS conference in Austin to present their findings. You can find out more about their groundbreaking project here.

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