Please note: The biology related aspects of this question are posted here.

In "The Martian" (2015), the protagonist grows potatoes on Mars. We see him using seemingly fresh potatoes as his seeds. enter image description here

enter image description here

The potatoes Mark used had been through a five-month journey through space without decomposing. Yet they still sprouted. In what way could they have been preserved to make both these things possible?

  • 2
    If I remember the book (which you should read if you're interested in this stuff) right, the potatoes are frozen. As to the rest, that may be better asked at the biology SE.
    – DavidS
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 10:28
  • 4
    Why are you assuming the potatoes went through a 4 year journey? They were sent with the crew, so their transit time was only 5 or so months.
    – Moo
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 10:51
  • 42
    This is super normal, I grew up on a farm and we literally dump buckets of potatoes in the basement, eat some from the pile and plant the ones that are left the next year. Probably longer than 5 months later. Potatoes are dirt cheap because they are super easy to grow and store for long periods of time.
    – Probst
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 14:30
  • 4
    You must clean out your fridge way more often then I do...
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 18:33
  • 8
    Just an FYI; potatoes are incredibly hard to kill. They have to be cooked to actually prevent them from growing - as anyone who has found a long lost spud in the back of a cupboard covered in small roots will attest. Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 7:37

2 Answers 2


I will begin this by stating that I am a PhD Student in potato post-harvest physiology and the sprouting of potatoes is an aspect that many people that work with this crop find very important.

It is certainly feasible that the potatoes, if refrigerated, would be able to sprout after several months. Some potatoes, including modern varieties, are able to sprout 2 years after their harvest if kept in a refrigerated environment. What is interesting about raw potatoes is that they are biologically alive and current preservation techniques aim to modify their urge to send sprouts to grow into a new plant. Other preservations techniques beyond refrigeration would include sprout inhibitors, chemicals that inhibit hormone mediated pathways that cause sprouting and package membrane technology. I imagine the packaging in this sci-fi movie is one that retards respiration and lengthens the life of the tubers.

However, the biggest issue with the plot resting on potato propagation is not the initial sprouting and growth. Rather, it is the rapid propagation of a second crop immediately after harvesting the first. Nearly every potato cultivar found in Europe and North America has a period of dormancy after harvest. This means that the tuber itself has hormonal controls that prevent any sprouting for a given period of time. While there are ways to overcome this, even with chemical sprout inducers, there is still a 1-2 month time period where the tubers from the previous crop will not sprout. Barring any chemicals to induce sprouting, it would take 3-4 months until the harvested tubers would sprout into a new crop.

Wiltshire, J. J. J., and A. H. Cobb. "A review of the physiology of potato tuber dormancy." Annals of Applied Biology 129.3 (1996): 553-569.

  • 77
    Definitely +1 for pointing out a plot hole by sciencing the hell out of it.
    – davidbak
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 16:15
  • 2
    Excellent answer! You should be well equipped to answer here as well biology.stackexchange.com/q/45683/23347
    – Fiksdal
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 16:24
  • 17
    TIL You can get a PhD in "Potato Post-Harvest Physiology", +1 Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 14:39
  • 9
    Might as well face it, you're addicted to spuds. Commented May 1, 2016 at 0:50
  • 4
    *reads first line* I will begin this by stating that I am a PhD Student in potato post-harvest physiology *checks out, didn't read the rest, +1 *
    – Möoz
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 5:49

From the book:

I am one lucky son of a bitch they aren’t freeze-dried or mulched. Why did NASA send twelve whole potatoes, refrigerated but not frozen? And why send them along with us as in-pressure cargo rather than in a crate with the rest of the Hab supplies? Because Thanksgiving was going to happen while we were doing surface operations, and NASA’s shrinks thought it would be good for us to make a meal together.

It is a common practice for farmers to store loose potatoes in a cold room or basement during the winter and then plant them in the spring and that should closely match the condition of the refrigerated potatoes in the book.

  • 14
    This seems pretty realistic. Refrigerated potatoes, heck, even non-refrigerated potatoes can last eons, and still grow after said eons. Source: I've done this. Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 11:15
  • 78
    @GorchestopherH, Eons? Done this? How old are you?
    – Separatrix
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 11:20
  • 4
    When you think about it, potatoes are harvested in August/September, and planted in March, so thats a decent period of time when potatoes are stored...
    – Moo
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 11:22
  • 52
    @Separatrix Most people say "best thing since sliced bread" I say "best thing since dirt". Before dirt this place was the worst. Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 11:26
  • 1
    Moisture can yeah, but it has to be pretty bad. You really don't need to do anything special to store piles of potatoes with say 5% or less spoilage. If the moisture levels are comfortable for people the potatoes will be fine.
    – Probst
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 14:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.