A tiny pot of soil, but a big step for space agriculture: Scientists have for the first time grown plants in a few grams of lunar soil, as reported by astronauts from the Apollo program decades ago.
This success fuels hope that one day it may be possible to grow crops directly on the moon. This would save future explorers numerous and costly loads aboard their rockets for longer missions farther afield.
However, there is still work to be done before that is achieved, as shown in this work by University of Florida researchers, published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.
“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term goals in human exploration,” NASA Chief Executive Bill Nelson said in a statement. “We will need to use resources on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living in space.”
For their experiment, the researchers used only 12 grams of lunar soil (a few teaspoons) collected from various locations on the moon during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions.
In small pots the size of a thimble, they placed about a gram of soil (called regolith) at a time, added water, and then the seeds. In addition, a nutrient solution was added daily.
The plant used was Arabidopsis thaliana, chosen because it is easy to grow and above all because it has already been extensively studied: its genetic code is known, as well as its behavior in hostile environments, even in space.
At the same time, seeds were planted in soil from our own soil and samples mimicking lunar and Martian soil to serve as a comparison.
Result: After two days, the seeds of the moon samples germinated.
And “all the plants, whether in the lunar or control soil samples, looked the same through day six,” Anna-Lisa Paul, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
However, later it was found that moon plants grow more slowly and have stunted roots.
After 20 days, scientists harvested them and analyzed their DNA. They found that the moon plants reacted in the same way as they would to a hostile environment, such as when a soil has too much salt or heavy metals.
In the future, scientists want to understand how this environment could be made more hospitable.
NASA is preparing to return to the moon as part of the Artemis program with the aim of establishing a permanent human presence there.