If we find a hypothetical Earth-like planet A with a rocky terrain that we could colonize, how would we go about planting the first plants, knowing that there is a deficient of nutrients and the planet receives infrared radiation? The temperature of the planet is similar to Earth and soil is deficient of nutrients.

Is it possible to use bioengineering to alter the properties of the plants to make them live in such conditions?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site! Your question is interesting, however as it stands is extremely broad - the topic of many books and doctoral theses - and as so isn't a good fit for the site. You need to edit and narrow it down to one specific question. Breaking it into separate questions asking each one in a different topic is fine. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Sep 22, 2021 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ is it okay now ? $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ The first sentence is still very broad, how would we go about planting the first plants has so much to it. Every planet will be different depending on temperature, regolith composition, atmosphere, availability of water and the other building blocks of life, and many other factors. You could ask what those factors are, or narrow it down to a specific set of factors, as it is there's no answer. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Sep 22, 2021 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ I am a highschooler and i am not expecting anything too scientific, also please do forgive my ignorance $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ This is a great site to learn from @JoelGeorgeV, there are some very knowledgeable people here. I think your question makes good sense now so I've retracted my close vote, I hope you get some interesting answers! $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Sep 22, 2021 at 9:39

3 Answers 3


There are a lot of specific factors that would be relevant for answering this. Here are a few:

  • What is the composition of the planet's atmosphere?

  • Is there any soil/regolith and what is it made of?

  • Does the planet have plate tectonics? (This is indirectly relevant for answering some of the above questions.)

  • Is there liquid water on the planet? Is there a water cycle? (i.e. does it rain?)

  • Is there native life on the planet already?

Most likely we would know the answers to all of these questions long before we were able to send any space ships there, so I'll assume we do know them. (Sending spacecraft to exoplanets gets into serious science fiction technology, but understanding their composition through remote sensing is something we've already started to do, and we will get a lot better at it in the coming decades.)

The atmospheric composition is important because plants need both oxygen and CO2 in order to grow. If you don't have CO2 then growing anything on the planet will be hopeless, because all living things need carbon. But luckily CO2 is very common in planetary atmospheres, so it's likely there will be some.

Oxygen is a bit trickier. In our Solar system, only the Earth has a substantial amount of oxygen in its atmosphere, and that oxygen was produced by life. So it's much less likely that your planet would have oxygen in its atmosphere, unless it had its own life already. (It's not completely impossible though, because an oygen-rich atmosphere could occur as a result of hydrogen escape.) If there is CO2 but no oxygen then you can't grow plants, but it could still be possible for cyanobacteria to grow, which are bacteria that can photosynthesise. Earth's oxygen was originally produced by cyanobacteria, before plants evolved. So if you had enough patience you could use cyanobacteria to increase the amount of oxygen, and then grow plants after that. It might take millions of years, though.

You probably also need nitrogen in the atmosphere, unless there is already nitrogen in the soil. But nitrogen is also very common in planetary atmospheres, so it's likely that it will be there.

Alternatively, if the atmosphere isn't suitable for plants or cyanobacteria, you might try building domed habitats instead, but I'll skip over that possibility, because I think you're more interested in having plants grow outdoors.

Then there is the question of what the soil is made of. Mars has CO2 in its atmosphere, so maybe cyanobacteria could grow there if it wasn't so cold. But the soil there is highly oxidising, which means it's basically bleach - you would probably have to process it somehow before you'd have much chance of growing anything in it.

You mentioned that the soil on your planet is nutrient-poor, which might suggest that the planet doesn't have plate tectonics. On our planet, nutrients tend to wash into the sea and get buried in sediment, but over very long time scales they get recycled as plate tectonics moves land masses around. If that didn't happen they would just stay there, at the bottom of the sea. In that case you would either have to bring nutrients with you or engage in some serious engineering to dig them up out of the deep ocean sediments.

Then there is the question of water. If the planet doesn't have liquid water then you don't have much chance of growing anything at any scale, so let's assume it does. If it doesn't have an active water cycle then things will be a bit tricky, but it probably will have one if sunlight is able to reach the surface.

Finally there is the question of whether there is life there already. Nobody knows how life got started on Earth (though there are plenty of plausible theories), so we don't know how likely it is that life would arise if the conditions are right. But my best guess is that if conditions are already perfect for life - there is good soil, and water, and light and nutrients and so on - then it's a good bet that life will already have arisen to fill the niche. In that case, it could be that anything you grow will be eaten or out-competed by the native life, or it could be that something you introduce would be an invasive species, taking over from native species and destroying the local ecosystems. The chemistry of alien life might be very different from that of Earth life, so the effects of this might be much more severe than the effect of invasive species on Earth, and those can be pretty bad already. So if there is life there already we might decide it's better to leave it alone and study it, instead of introducing our own species. (Or at least, I hope we would decide that.)

  • $\begingroup$ I thought about using an underground base for living and putting a dome-like structure outside for agriculture. We would still have to go with cyanobacteria though. Thank you for being completely patient and going through every possibilities!! $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2021 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JoelGeorgeV if you build a dome you don't have to start with cyanobacteria, as you can put whatever atmosphere you like inside the dome. (Oxygen can easily be made from water - you couldn't oxygenate the whole atmosphere that way but you could fill a dome.) $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Sep 23, 2021 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Oh how stupid of me.. Thanks a ton!! $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2021 at 15:30

Ignoring the infrared radiation aspect of your question, what you are describing is a situation not too dissimilar to what exists in many parts of Australia.

The extreme degree of weathering that has occurred in Australia over millennia has left the soils in many parts of Australia leached of nutrients.

Over time, native plants adapted to this situation to the extent they no longer tolerate high levels of potassium and phosphorus, elements that are essential to most plants elsewhere. Additionally, some soils can lack other essential elements referred to as "trace elements" such as, molybdenum, copper, zinc and boron.

To compensate for such deficiencies, agricultural enterprises use fertilizers that have added trace elements, such as superphosphate fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc and molybdenum.

As a result of agriculture in soils with element and nutrient deficiencies it is not unheard of for some people to have element deficiencies, such as copper or zinc deficiencies that result in health issues.

If a similar situation occurred elsewhere in the cosmos I expect a similar response, conduct tests to discover the soil element deficiencies and prior to seeding a crop fertilize the affected pasture with element enriched fertilizer on a localized scale - only fertilize the areas needed for agriculture.

The other aspect concerning plant health that is often overlooked is the contribution made by soil microbes.

Additionally, extraterrestrial soils can contain compounds that are toxic to many life forms, such as percolates on Mars.

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    $\begingroup$ So... Australia is an exoplanet. $\endgroup$
    – 10 Rep
    Sep 22, 2021 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @10Rep: It sometimes seems like: nutrient deficient soils, pyrophilic plants, possibility the largest number of species of carnivorous plants , marsupials, deadly snakes, spiders & marine life, UV issues in southern parts during summer & very little rainfall over most of the continent; third rate politicians seemingly devoid of courtesy, intelligence & diplomatic skills. It's almost like Australia is the spaceship that landed $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Sep 22, 2021 at 17:27

In general space based plants will probably be hydroponics so most likely initial agriculture will be indoors in vertical farms. Possibly using mechanically harvested/processed materials to carefully expand the setup but certainly more productive of human labor to grow high yield plants in optimal conditions than hardier specimens outdoors. If the outdoors is truly lifeless the atmosphere will have no oxygen and a disrupted water cycle, so any earth born complex plants are not going to survive at all. you would be looking at terraforming first (specifically getting oxygen built up, and that is pretty much out of the scope of space exploration and into world building given how little fact based information is available on the topic.


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