Heinz, a company synonymous with ketchup, successfully funded and collaborated with biologists at Florida Tech’s Aldrin Space Institute to grow tomatoes in Mars-like conditions here on the Space Coast to show once and for all that even on faraway worlds humans can have the perfect condiment.
With the help of 14 graduate and undergraduate students, Andrew Palmer, associate professor of biological sciences at Florida Tech, grew 450 tomato plants in regolith, the loose unconsolidated rock and dust that cover planets like Mars.
“The team successfully yielded a crop of Heinz tomatoes, from the brand’s proprietary tomato seeds, with the exacting qualities that pass the rigorous quality and taste standards to become its iconic ketchup,” the company said in a statement.
Heinz was certainly proud of the accomplishment that took two years to complete.
Now with travel to Mars on the horizon, the time has come for space ice cream to step aside and make room for the flavor of a new era of planetary travel: tomato ketchup, the “Marz Edition.”
The experiment is the first of its kind. It actually produced a single bottle of ketchup that was unveiled on Nov. 15 at Heinz HQ in Pittsburgh.
While Heinz has no plans to sell any of its Marz Edition ketchup just yet, the project represents more than just space-age, pop-culture marketing. There was serious science behind it with implications for life on earth, as well as on the red planet as scientists look to grow food in poor soils.
“Before now, most efforts around discovering ways to grow in Martian-simulated conditions are short-term plant growth studies. What this project has done is look at long-term food harvesting,” said Palmer in a news release from Heinz.
One of the biggest hurdles with producing food on Mars, Palmer said, is the difference between Earth and Martian soil. According to Palmer, the key difference is that Martian soil isn’t really soil. Regolith “doesn’t have any organic matter, so there’s nothing alive … so, there’s not a lot of organic material there,” Palmer said.
To mimic Martian regolith, the team used 7,800 pounds of soil from the Mojave Desert — a terracotta-colored grit that is similar to Martian regolith, according to a statement released by the Florida Institute of Technology. Though the regolith is dry and fine, the team found that it didn’t require more water to sustain the plants than it would have with normal soil.
The tomatoes grew in a greenhouse at Florida Tech’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design in Palm Bay, referred to as the “Red House.” Temperatures at the Red House fluctuated between 73 and 83 degrees, depending on if it was nighttime or daytime, Palmer said. The tomatoes produced under these conditions were held to high standards, Palmer said. Heinz has “Tomato Masters” who inspect the quality of the tomatoes grown to ensure that they meet professional food-grade standards.
The two-year partnership started with an email that Palmer initially thought was a prank. However, after a second read-through, Palmer realized Heinz was interested in partnering with his lab to cultivate Martian tomatoes, Palmer said. Heinz was most certainly crowing about the achievement.
“For me the biggest thing was smell — they have very strong like tomato quality smell to them,” Palmer said. When Palmer and his team tried the tomatoes, he said they tasted like tomatoes grown from normal soil.