Research underway at UNCG to grow plants on Mars

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The next time you go out at night to walk the dog, look up in the sky and see if you can see Mars. Humans already have stuff there – and we might be there in person some day fairly soon if Dr. John Kiss has his way.

Kiss is a biologist at UNC-Greensboro and his team is studying how to grow plants on places like Mars. That takes a lot more than a few seeds and a bottle of Miracle Grow.

“First of all, you'd have to have some kind of greenhouse. And one of the things that our research is focused on is reduced and fractional gravity. People know a little bit about that - particularly people our age - as you remember, the Apollo astronauts, they were carrying a 300-pound backpack and they're hopping around on the moon without effort and that's because the gravity on the moon is one-sixth of what it is on earth. Mars is a bigger planet but it's smaller than the earth, so the gravity level there is three-eighths,” Kiss said.

The work his lab is doing is the essential groundwork necessary before human travel to Mars can be seriously considered.

“The research we've done will support long-term, long-range space travel,” Kiss said. “Things like colonies on the moon, colonies on Mars because plants are a really important part of this process, these plants can be used as a food source, provide oxygen, we could genetically engineer plants and make medicines the astronauts might need.”

Kiss’ team is fully bought in on the idea, though for some like biochemistry major, Alena Jones, it took a while.

“It's funny, because at first, in high school learning about plants, I thought it was so boring,” she said. “And now, doing research on plants, I think it's really interesting because it's another form of life and if we can put them into space - on Mars - it would be neat to send humans up there.”

That’s definitely the plan Kiss is working on – and this is far from his first NASA mission.

“I do think we have a destiny in space,” Kiss said. “And I think Mars, in particular, is particularly interesting and it really asks this large, philosophical question of, 'Are we alone? Is there life on Mars?' And there's a lot of data to suggest there is microbial life but we don't know for sure. But I think that discovery alone - or that potential discovery - will change how we view ourselves as humans on this earth.”

Check back with us in a few years, to see how successful they are.

“I believe we can do it,” says Ibe Iloghalu, another member of the team. “We've come a long way in science. So many of the discoveries we have today sounded that way when they started and it took a long while before it came to fruition. I believe we're getting somewhere. It all starts this way, step-by-step.”

Take a trip inside Kiss’ lab in this edition of the Buckley Report.