Growing greens just went lunar.
For the first time, scientists have successfully grown plants using lunar soil—known as lunar regolith—collected from past moon expeditions.
Scientists at the University of Florida conducted the experiment using a well-studied plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana, a crop native to Eurasia and Africa and a relative of the mustard green and other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. They didn’t even know if the seeds would germinate.
In a paper published May 12 in the journal Communications Biology, researchers explained how they conducted the experiment using teaspoon-sized samples of regolith— collected from Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions—alongside control earth soil and a lunar soil simulant made from volcanic ash. Each plant was allotted only a gram of the lunar soil for the study.
“After two days, they started to sprout,” said Anna-Lisa Paul, a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, according to NASA. “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.”
After those initial six days, according to the paper, it became clear that the nutrient-poor lunar soil wasn’t quite as hospitable of a growing environment, as the plants grown in the control group grew more robust than those in the regolith. The lunar soil-grown plants were slightly stunted both in their root systems and leaves. Nonetheless, all the plants survived until researchers harvested them after 20 days—right before they went to flower.
Lunar Plants Research Documentation, Tuesday May 18th, 2021.
For the next steps in the experiments, scientists ground up the plants to study their biological systems. This revealed what was apparent during the growing period, that the plants rooted in lunar soil were under stressed conditions in relation to the controls. But the study was still deemed a success.
The groundbreaking research, part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), an “effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program,” has serious repercussions for future areas of study.
“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. “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.”