Story at a glance
- Scientists from the University of Florida have been able to successfully grow small plants in lunar soil.
- Researchers were only able to use a tiny amount of lunar soil, which was brought back to Earth from the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.
- Scientists still need to do more work in the area, but the success of the experiment means humanity is one step closer to growing plants on the Moon.
For the first time ever, scientists have successfully grown plants in soil from the Moon.
Researchers from the University of Florida planted seeds from the Arabidopsis plant — commonly known as thale cress — into a few teaspoons worth of lunar soil collected in the late 60s and early 70s during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.
After about a week of watering and feeding, the seeds grew into and out of the soil, or lunar regolith, according to a paper detailing the experiment published Thursday in the scientific journal “Communications Biology.”
Researchers were “over the moon” with the plant’s successful growth, which marks a major milestone in lunar and space exploration. The achievement brings scientists one step closer to potentially growing plants for food or oxygen on the Moon.
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The experiment was years in the making and was only made possible by the fact that NASA’s Artemis Program is gearing up to return humans to the Moon by 2025. The two main researchers on the experiment, Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl, applied to use lunar soil four times over 11 years before being approved to use samples on loan from NASA.
Seeds from the Arabidopsis plant were used for the experiment since scientists have fully mapped out its genetic code — making it easier to fully study the lunar regolith’s effect on the plant.
Along with using lunar soil, researchers planted Arabidopsis seeds into JSC-1A, volcanic ash that mimics lunar soil, simulated Martian soil and earth soil from extreme environments as a control.
To Paul and Ferl’s surprise, all of the seeds planted into the lunar soil sprouted, but as the plants grew bigger, the researchers noticed differences in those that had been planted in the regolith and those planted in terrestrial soil.
Some of the plants in the lunar soil grew smaller, more slowly and varied in size more drastically than those in the control group and there was also a difference in plant growth based on which Apollo site the seeds were planted into.
The soils collected from the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions have differing degrees of “maturity,” Paul explained, or how long they have been exposed to the lunar surface and cosmic winds, which can change the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil .
“It becomes sharper, the particles become smaller and [they] act like impediments and challenges to the roots growing and hinder their ability to absorb nutrients,” Paul told Changing America.
While NASA Senior Scientist Sharmila Bhattacharya called the findings of the experiment “exciting” she stressed that there was still a lot more work to be done since the seeds planted in the regolith did not grow as well as those in the simulant or terrestrial soil. Some next steps for researchers, Bhattacharya said, could be looking into optimizing growth and testing other plant types to see how well they grow in the lunar soil.
But the growth of the Arabidopsis seeds in Moon soil is a first of its kind achievement and harkens back to what got many researchers who grew up in the Apollo era interested in science in the first place.
“You have to remember that as kids we watched as these samples were collected…we watched them on TV as little kids and so to be a part of this legacy, even a small part, is extraordinary,” said Paul. Ferl too can remember watching the Apollo missions being inspired as a child to pursue a career in science.
“First off, the ability to work with lunar samples is really pretty big and it tugs on what got us into science in the first place,” Ferl said. “And the notion that we can through our work, help the exploration agenda by understanding how we might live and work on the Moon feels like a big contribution. It feels like we are making a difference.”
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Published on May. 12, 2022