For the first time, scientists have grown plants in the dirt of the Moon.  It did not go perfectly

For the first time, scientists have grown plants in the dirt of the Moon. It did not go perfectly

When the Artemis program returns humans to the Moon in (hopefully) in a few years, there is significant logistics that must be addressed to keep such fragile beings alive in such a hostile environment.

Equally important is the issue of food. The space services involved in the International Space Station are very experienced, so far, in providing pre-packaged supplies, but there are advantages to accessing fresh food, including both physical and mental health.

If lunar soil proved to be a suitable medium for growing fresh crops, this would be amazing. So a team of scientists used a few precious grams of real lunar specimens collected during the Apollo missions to try to grow plants – namely, cardamom or Arabidopsis thaliana.

“For future, larger space missions, we can use the Moon as a hub or launch pad. It makes sense to want to use the ground that is already there to grow plants,” said Rob Ferl, a gardening scientist at the University of Florida.

“So what happens when you grow plants on lunar soil, which is completely out of the evolutionary experience of a plant? What would plants do in a lunar greenhouse? Could we have lunar farmers?”

Well, spoiler: Moon dirt, also known as lunar regolith, is not very good at growing plants. But this research is only a first step towards the growth of plants on the Moon one day in a fascinating future of science fiction.

The current amount of lunar material sample here on Earth is quite small, and therefore valuable and valuable.

Ferl and his colleagues, fellow gardening scientist at the University of Florida Anna-Lisa Paul and geologist Stephen Elardo, received a loan of just 12 grams of the valuable material, after three applications were submitted for 11 years.

This required a very small, very tight experiment – a mini garden Arabidopsis. Carefully distribute their samples to be divided into 12 thimble-sized pots, to each of which a nutrient solution and some seeds were added.

Seed control groups were also planted on land from extreme environments, and soil simulators (a terrestrial material used to simulate the properties of extraterrestrial soils).

For the experiment, the team used a Mars ground simulator and a moon simulator called JSC-1A. This is important because previous experiments have shown that plants can grow well in both types of simulators, but subtle differences could mean that the real thing is a different story.

sad plants in the dirt of the moon(Paul et al., Communications Biology, 2022)

Above: Plants grown in the three sets of lunar soil and soil simulator.

In fact this seems to be the case. To the surprise of the researchers, almost all the seeds planted in the lunar specimens sprouted, but there things took a turn for the worse. Instead of growing happily, the seedlings appeared to be smaller, slower to grow and much more varied in size than the plants grown in the Moon simulator.

When the team then exported the plants for genetic analysis, they discovered why.

“At the genetic level, plants produced the tools commonly used to deal with stressors, such as salt and minerals or oxidative stress, so we can conclude that plants perceive lunar soil as stressful,” says Paul.

“Ultimately, we would like to use gene expression data to help address how we can improve stress responses to the level where plants – especially crops – can grow in lunar soil with very little impact on health. their”.

The lunar samples used by the researchers came from three different locations on the Moon, at different depth layers from the surface, collected from Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.

Interestingly, this seemed to have an effect on how well the plants respond to the soil. Those planted in the ground closest to the surface, from Apollo 11, did worse. one plant even died. This is the layer of lunar regolith that is most exposed to cosmic rays and the solar wind, which destroys it.

In contrast, seeds planted in less exposed soil did much better, although the results were not as good as those grown on terrestrial volcanic ash. This information could help scientists understand how to grow better plants on the Moon, as well as develop ways to make lunar soil more plant-friendly.

We’re not there yet, though. Further research will be needed to characterize and optimize lunar soil for plant growth before we can consider using Moon litter to grow crops. But now scientists have at least a clearer understanding of what they are working on and what the next steps should be.

“We wanted to do this experiment because, for years, we asked this question: Will plants grow on lunar soil,” Ferl said. “The answer, it turns out, is yes.”

The research has been published in Biology of Communications.

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