FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Researchers at the University of Arkansas presented an abstract at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference that says it may be possible to grow genetically modified rice on Mars.

The team’s abstract says that one of the biggest challenges when growing food on Mars is salts in the soil that are toxic to plants.

The researchers used soil from the Mojave Desert to simulate that of the surface of Mars.

Abhilash Ramachandran and Peter James Gann, two of the researchers on the project, said that they came up with the idea over a cup of coffee in the student union.

“He was new here at the university, and we shared the things we were doing in our respective laboratories,” Gann said. “Since he works on planetary science and I specialize in cell and molecular biology, we decided to try out plants.”

Ramachandran is a postdoctoral fellow at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and Gann is a doctoral student in cell and molecular biology.

“Relevant and interesting research can emanate from talking to strangers over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer,” Gann said. “Isn’t that cool?” 

Ramachandran and Gann were joined by Yheni Dwiningsih, a postdoctoral associate in plant sciences; Dominic Dharwadker, an undergraduate student in the Honors College; and Vibha Srivastava, a professor in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences who has a joint appointment with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

The team grew three different types of rice and found that certain genetic modifications could help the rice better respond to the salt-rich soil on the red planet.

The researchers say that their studies are not only important for Mars, but for Earth as well.

“We could use Earth as a terrestrial analog before the seeds ever get sent to Mars,” Ramachandran said.