Future space missions to Mars will depend on the development of bioregenerative life support systems. Mars regolith contains most of the nutrients needed for plant growth, but not organic matter (OM). Although Mars simulants have been deeply characterized and tested as growing media, no data are available about their possible modification occurring during terraforming, including the interaction of exogeneous OM with iron (Fe) oxides, particularly abundant in Mars regolith. The aim of this study was to investigate the mineral transformation and the OM evolution occurring in the early stages of the terraforming process. Potato was grown for 99 days on Mojave Mars Simulant MMS-1, alone (R100) and mixed with a compost 70:30 v:v (R70C30), and on a fluvial sand, alone (S100) and mixed with compost (S70C30), for comparison. Bulk (BK) and potato tubero/rhizo-sphere (RH) soils were fractionated to obtain particulate OM (POM) and mineral-associated OM (MAOM). Bulk samples and corresponding fractions were characterized for total nitrogen and organic carbon (C) and analyzed by Fe K-edge X-ray absorption near-edge structure (XANES) and extended X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) spectroscopy. Organic C increased by 10 and 25 times in S70C30 and R70C30, respectively, compared to S100 and R100. Most of the organic C accumulated in the POM fraction of both growing substrates, while its content in the MAOM was 3 times higher in R70C30 than in S70C30. No significant differences between BK and RH were found. Finally, ferrihydrite mediated exogenous OM stabilization in regolith-based substrates, while Fe(III)-OM complexes were detected exclusively in sand-based growing media. Understanding mechanisms and testing potential sustainable practices for creating Mars regolith similar to terrestrial soil will be fundamental to sustain food crop production on Mars.
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