Scientists grow plants in lunar dirt, next stop moon

Anna-Lisa Paul tries to moisten the moon bottoms with a pipette. The scientists found that the bottom repelled water (was hydrophobic), causing the water to bead on the surface. Active stirring of the material with water was necessary to break the hydrophobicity and evenly moisten the soil. Once moistened, the lunar soils could be moistened by capillary action for plant culture. Credit: UF/IFAS, Tyler Jones

For the first time, scientists have grown plants in lunar soil collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.

Researchers had no idea if anything would germinate in the hard lunar dirt and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar researchers. The results amazed them.

‘Holy cow. Plants really do grow in moon dust. Are u kidding me?’ said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress in lunar soil returned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 and other lunar walkers. The good news: all the seeds have germinated.

The downside was that after the first week, the coarseness and other features of the lunar soil stressed the tiny, flowering weeds so much that they grew more slowly than seedlings planted in fake moon soil. Most moon plants ended in their growth.

The results were published on Thursday in Communication biology

The longer the soil was exposed to punishing cosmic rays and solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to do. The Apollo 11 samples — exposed to the elements a few billion years longer because of the older surface of the Sea of ​​Tranquility — were the least conducive to growth, according to scientists.

“This is a big step forward in knowing you can grow plants,” said Simon Gilroy, a space plant biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not involved in the study. “The real next step is to do it on the surface of the moon.”

Moon dirt is full of tiny glass fragments from micrometeorites that made their way into the Apollo lunar landers wearing the moonwalkers’ spacesuits.

One solution could be to use younger geological sites on the moon, such as lava flows, to excavate planting soil. The environment can also be adjusted, by changing the food mixture or adjusting the artificial lighting,

Only 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of moon rocks and Earth were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the earliest moon dust was sprinkled on plants quarantined with the Apollo astronauts in Houston after they returned from the moon.

Most of the lunar supply remained under lock and key, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated soil made from Earth’s volcanic ash. NASA finally handed out 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida early last year, and the much-anticipated planting took place in a lab last May.

NASA said the timing for such an experiment was finally right, with the space agency aiming to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.

The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to use the endless supply of available local dirt for indoor planting versus setting up a hydroponics or full water system, scientists say.

“The fact that something grew means we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how we can optimize and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s space biology program scientist,

The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil and plant more thale cress later this year before possibly switching to other vegetation.


A first: scientists grow plants in Earth from the moon


More information:
Anna-Lisa Paul, Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes informing prospects for lunar exploration, Communication biology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03334-8. www.nature.com/articles/s42003-022-03334-8

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