mars colony
Illustration of a base on Mars. NASA Ames Research Center

Simply stepping outdoors in the hostile environs of space is a hazardous undertaking for living beings–aside from the lack of gravity and the low- to no-pressure conditions, radiation runs rampant outside of Earth’s protective atmospheric cocoon. As such, space seems like a poor place for farming. But thriving plant life near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine suggests that farming in space may not be so very impossible after all.

Even 25 years after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the area around the site harbors radioactive soil. But researchers working there have found that oil-rich flax plants can adapt and flourish in that fouled environment with few problems. Exactly how the flax adapted remains unclear, but what is clear is that two generations of flax plants have taken root and thrived there, and that could have big implications for growing plants aboard spacecraft or on other planets at some point in the future.

Researchers from the Slovak Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology and their colleagues planted flax in both radioactive soils near the accident site and in similar but unpolluted soil in the nearby town. They found that the flax that survived in the radioactive soil did indeed undergo some changes, but those changes weren’t genetically drastic.

Just five percent of the 720 plant proteins that were observed changed, indicating that plants may not be as susceptible to radiation as we thought. Moreover, it suggests that with little change to their overall biologies, more plant species might be able to thrive in radioactive environments given the opportunity.

How? Researchers are still sorting out the whys and hows, but Martin Hajduch of the Slovak Academy has an idea: “My favorite speculation is that when life on Earth was evolving, radioactivity was much more present on Earth’s surface than is today,” Hajduch told Astrobiology magazine. “And so the plants are somehow ‘remembering’ it, [which is] what helped them to adapt in Chernobyl’s radioactive area.”

Deep in the plant kingdom’s various genomes there could be an old mechanism for coping with higher doses of radiation, meaning plant farming on the moon, Mars, or elsewhere might not require as much radiation shielding as we’ve always thought. If so, scientists then only have to worry about dealing with zero gravity environments, producing enough water for crops, the arability of extraterrestrial soils, and the lack of atmosphere. Sounds simple enough.