Martian olives, courtesy of Italian project and EU cash

An EU-funded project aimed at growing plants in extremely hostile conditions could see olive trees on Mars one day. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report EU in my region.

Is there life on Mars? Maybe soon. What seems more like Hollywood sci-fi than genuine farming prospect could soon come to fruition, as an Italian project uses EU funding to grow plants in extremely hostile conditions. EURACTIV Italy reports.

The silver screen has broached the subject before, first in 1996’s ‘Growing Artichokes in Mimongo‘, set in Africa, and then 2015’s blockbuster ‘The Martian’, where Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut-botanist tries to survive his unplanned stay on the Red Planet.

Perhaps it was the latter movie that inspired a new project that wants to cultivate olive trees on the very same planet.

The technology that creates micro-ecosystems was first patented by Enea (the National Agency for Technology, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development) and was developed in the Tripode Public-Private Laboratory.

More progress was made thanks to the ISAAC Project, which was co-financed with more than €4.7 million from the European Horizon 2020 programme.

In the Italian project, cultivating olive trees on Mars could actually become possible thanks to a ‘microcosm’ that allows plants to grow in extreme and hostile environments. It was developed by Enea at a research centre near Naples.

Jean-Yves Le Gall: ‘Mars is the pinnacle of exploration'

The European Space Agency has its sights set on the red planet. The only real barrier to a manned mission is the length of the journey, Jean-Yves Le Gall said in an interview with EURACTIV France.

Using the land, and not a solution of water and nutrients like in other space gardens, the system simulates the conditions of a field, but indoors, and allows people to grow potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and basil and, for the first time in these conditions, even trees.

In fact, the system allows woody plants to grow in environments normally unsuitable for them, like airports, metro stations and shopping malls, but also extreme deserts and polar areas.

“Our ‘microcosms’ are true ecosystems, different from traditional greenhouses and growth chambers, and are able to faithfully replicate in the laboratory what happens naturally in a cultivated field,” explained Luigi d’Aquino, a member of the Enea team.

This is made possible by the use of two cultivation chambers: a lower one for the roots and an upper one for the stem and crown. Although independent, the two ‘rooms’ are linked to each other, mimicking the natural connection between a tree’s stem and roots.

Gaseous exchanges take place through the soil where the roots grow. The simulator used in the Enea project controls and manages plant growth through a hi-tech device that check humidity and temperature, while LED lights modulate the right levels of lighting.

The team’s results have already generated local media interest and although the curiosity and enthusiasm are justified, it will still take time to test the achievements of the ISAAC Project in ‘real’ conditions, i.e. in space and on Mars.

The conquest of Mars could be just over the horizon but ISAAC Project researchers will want to field-test their work on Terra-firma ahead of handing it over to an actual astronaut, meaning EU Cohesion Funds will also help Africa before shooting for the stars.

Italian olive-growers denounce 'Pontius Pilate' EU plan

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has officially backed drastic measures adopted by the EU to combat a bacteria infection that is decimating Italy’s olive crop. EURACTIV’s partner Italia Oggi reports.

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