Scientists grow plants in lunar soil

Plants grown in lunar soil are now a reality. Scientists examine the plates filled partly with lunar soil and partly with control soils, under LED grow lights. At the time, scientists did not know if the seeds would even germinate in lunar soil. Image via UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones.

Originally published as Scientists Grow Plants in Lunar Soil on May 12, 2022 by NASA. The author is Bill Keeter.

Scientists grow plants in lunar soil

At the start of the space age, Apollo astronauts had a visionary plan to bring back samples of the lunar surface material, known as regolith, so they could study it with state-of-the-art equipment and the use in future research. Now, 50 years later, as we begin the Age of Artemis and send astronauts back to the Moon, three of those lunar samples have successfully grown plants. The researchers grew the hardy and well-studied Arabidopsis thaliana in nutrient-poor lunar regolith.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said:

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. 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.

University of Florida scientists succeed

University of Florida scientists make a groundbreaking discovery that can both enable space exploration and benefit humanity.

Laboratory with test tubes and scientists.
Scientists Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl, working with lunar soils in their laboratory. Image via UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones.

Robert Ferl is a professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida and was a communicating author for an article published May 12, 2022 in the peer-reviewed journal Communications Biology. ferl said:

Here we are, 50 years later, finishing experiments started in the Apollo laboratories. We first asked ourselves whether the plants could grow in the regolith. And two, how could it ever help humans have an extended stay on the moon.

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Plants can grow in lunar regolith. They are not as hardy as plants grown in soil on Earth. Or even like those in the control group grown in a lunar simulant made from volcanic ash. But they did grow. And by studying how plants respond in lunar samples, the team also hopes to answer the second question, paving the way for future astronauts to grow nutrient-rich plants on the moon and thrive in deep space.

To go boldly, you must grow boldly

Jacob Bleacher is the Chief Exploration Scientist supporting NASA’s Artemis program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Bleacher points out that NASA is sending robotic missions to the moon’s south pole to search for water that future astronauts can use. Blecher said:

To explore more and learn more about the solar system we live in, we need to take advantage of what’s on the moon, so we don’t have to take it all with us. Also, plant cultivation is the kind of thing we will study when we go. Thus, these field studies pave the way for the expansion of such research by the next humans on the moon.

Arabidopsis thaliana, native to Eurasia and Africa, is a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. It also plays a key role for scientists. Due to its small size and ease of growth, it is one of the most studied plants in the world, used as a model organism for research in all areas of plant biology. So scientists already know what its genes look like, how it behaves in different circumstances, and even how it develops in space.

Close-up of a test tube containing a plant.
Scientists place a plant grown during the experiment in a flask for possible genetic analysis. Image via UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones.

Work with teaspoon-sized samples

To grow Arabidopsis, the team used samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions. Each plant used just one gram of regolith. Next, the team added water and seeds to the samples. Then they put the trays in terrarium boxes in a clean room. Finally, they added a nutrient solution daily.

Tray with test tubes containing dirt.
Scientists moisten the lunar soils with a pipette. Scientists have discovered that soils repel water, causing water to bead up on the surface. They had to actively stir the material with water to achieve evenly moist soil. Once moistened, capillary action wetted the lunar soils for growing plants. Image via UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones.

Anna-Lisa Paul, professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida and first author of the paper, said:

After two days, they started to sprout! Everything germinated. I can’t tell you how surprised we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same until about the sixth day.

After the sixth day, it was clear that the plants in the lunar soil were not as hardy as the plants in the control group growing in the volcanic ash. And the plants grew differently depending on the type of sample they were in. Lunar soil plants grew more slowly and had stunted roots. Additionally, some had stunted leaves and sported reddish pigmentation.

Plants in test tubes.
On day 16, there were clear physical differences between plants grown in the lunar volcanic ash simulant, left, versus those grown in lunar soil, right. Image via UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones.

Plants grown in lunar soil crushed for study

After 20 days, just before the plants started to flower, the team harvested the plants. They ground them up and studied the RNA. In a biological system, scientists decode genes in several steps. First, they transcribe genes, or DNA, into RNA. Then they translate the RNA into a protein sequence. These proteins perform many biological processes in a living organism. RNA sequencing revealed the patterns of genes that were expressed. This showed that the plants were indeed stressed and reacted in the same way Arabidopsis reacted to growing in other harsh environments.

Additionally, the plants reacted differently depending on which sample – from different areas of the moon – was used. The plants grown in the Apollo 11 samples weren’t as hardy as the other two sets. Nevertheless, the plants grew.

Sowing the seeds for future research

This research opens the door not only to one day growing plants in habitats on the moon, but to a wide range of additional questions. Can understanding the genes plants need to adapt to growing in regolith help us understand how to reduce the stressful nature of lunar soil? Are materials from different regions of the moon more suitable for growing plants than others? Could studying lunar regolith help us better understand the regolith of Mars and the plants potentially growing in this material as well? So many questions that the team hopes to study next, in support of future astronauts traveling to the Moon.

Sharmila Bhattacharya, Program Scientist in NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division, said:

Not only is it nice for us to have plants around us, especially when venturing to new destinations in space, but they could provide a nutritional supplement to our diets and enable future human exploration. Plants are what allow us to be explorers.

Conclusion: Scientists have successfully grown plants using lunar soil. This is essential for future space missions where humans might explore life on the moon or on another planet.

Source: Plants grown in Apollo’s lunar regolith exhibit stress-associated transcriptomes that inform lunar exploration prospects


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