Scientists are growing plants in lunar soil for the first time

For the first time ever, scientists have grown plants in soil samples taken from the Moon fifty years ago, a feat that could have implications not only for prolonged space exploration, but also for plants trying to thrive in difficult conditions on our planet.

During the study, which was funded by NASA, scientists from the University of Florida grew Arabidopsis thalianaa plant in the mustard leaf family, in lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions, NPR reported.

“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals, as we will need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space.” , NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, according to a NASA press release. “This fundamental research on plant growth is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth. “

The study, “Plants grown in Apollo’s lunar regolith exhibit stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration,” was published in the journal Communications Biology.

Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant related to mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, according to the NASA press release. Arabidopsis thaliana is native to Africa and Eurasia.

Study lead author Anna-Lisa Paul, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and a research professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, said samples of lunar soil – a loose layer of debris called regolith – was “fine” and “powdery,” although the seeds planted by the researchers germinated successfully, NPR reported.

One gram of regolith was used to grow the Arabidopsis, the statement said. Scientists added seeds to the moistened soil, along with a daily nutrient mix. As a control, the researchers also planted the Arabidopsis seeds in volcanic ash to simulate lunar soil.

Plants grown in the volcanic ash lunar simulant, left, were compared to those grown in lunar soil, right.
UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

“After two days, they started sprouting!” Paul said, according to the NASA press release. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how surprised we were! Each plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same until about the sixth day.

However, plants planted in regolith and simulated lunar soil did not grow as well as those grown in terrestrial soil. Plants also grew differently depending on which group they belonged to. Some grew more slowly and had stunted roots, while others had stunted leaves with a reddish coloration.

Scientists collected the Arabidopsis after a period of 20 days, just before they begin to flower. They then ground the plants so they could study their RNA. After sequencing the RNA, they found that the plants exhibited patterns seen in Arabidopsis under the stress of growing in different harsh environments, such as when there are too many heavy metals or salt in the soil.

The NASA press release said the research provided a starting point for growing plants on the Moon in the future. It also raised questions about whether the results could help scientists learn how to make soil on the Moon more conducive to plant growth, and whether studying how plants grow in the lunar regolith could eventually help scientists learn more about regolith. on Mars and the prospect of growing plants there.

“Not only is it nice for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide additional nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration.” , said the program scientist from NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division. Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA reported in the press release. “Plants are what allow us to be explorers.”

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