For the first time ever, scientists have grown plants in soil samples collected from the Moon fifty years ago, a feat that could have implications not only for prolonged space exploration, but for plants trying to thrive in harsh conditions on our planet.
During the study, which was funded by NASA, University of Florida scientists grew Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant in the mustard greens 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’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, according to a NASA press release. “This fundamental plant growth research 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 lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration,” was published in the journal Communications Biology.
Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant that is related to mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, the NASA press release said. Arabidopsis thaliana is native to Africa and Eurasia.
Lead author of the study Anna-Lisa Paul, who is the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and a research professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, said samples of the lunar soil —a loose layer of debris called regolith — were “fine” and “powdery,” though the seeds the researchers planted did sprout successfully, reported NPR.
A gram of regolith was used to grow the Arabidopsis, the press release said. The scientists added seeds to the moistened soil, along with a daily mixture of nutrients. As a control, the researchers also planted the Arabidopsis seeds in volcanic ash to simulate the lunar soil.
“After two days, they started to sprout!” Paul said, according to the NASA press release. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.”
The plants planted in the regolith and simulated lunar soil didn’t grow as well as those grown in terrestrial soil, however. The plants also grew differently depending on what group they were in. Some grew more slowly and had roots that were stunted, while others had stunted leaves with a reddish coloring.
The scientists harvested the Arabidopsis after a period of 20 days, just before they began to flower. They then ground up the plants so that they could study their RNA. After sequencing the RNA, they found that the plants exhibited patterns seen in Arabidopsis under stress from 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 posed the question of whether the results could help scientists learn how to make the soil on the Moon more amenable to plant growth, and if the study of how plants grow in Moon regolith might possibly be able to help scientists learn more about the regolith on Mars and the prospect of growing plants there.
“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration,” said program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA reported in the press release. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”