Plants can thrive in soil that comes from the moon. This is what scientists at the University of Florida have shown. This is the first time ever that this has been successful, much to the surprise of the researchers themselves.
In their experiment, the researchers used bulk material from the moon or lunar regolith. They only had 12 grams of lunar soil collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. NASA provided those twelve grams for the research.
“This is the most important discovery: plants can grow in lunar soil,” study co-author Rob Ferrell told USA TODAY. “This is absolutely amazing because there were no plants on the Moon. The seeds were not adapted to life there. In our arrogance, there is no evolutionary reason to believe that plants can grow in lunar soil.”
But just because plants can grow in lunar soil doesn’t mean they love them. On the contrary, claims another co-author, Anna Lisa Paul. “They adjust the metabolism. Although they don’t like growing in moon rocks, they adapt to growing,” she tells USA TODAY. “They get all kinds of tools out of their metabolic toolbox.”
The researchers also planted the seeds in another soil as a control group. “The roots of these plants grew really well, long and straight, and the plants were very vigorous,” Paul says. This was not the case with the seeds in the lunar regolith. The roots of these were “more muddled and distorted”. Stephen Ellardo, another co-author of the study published in Communications Biology, argues that “the moon is not a hospitable place for plants.”
I planted Arabidopsis or cress seeds in moon dust to see if they would sprout. The cress plant, with small white flowers, is native to Eurasia and Africa. The plant is often used for research to ensure that the entire genetic code has been set. Water, nutrients and light were added to the seeds.
Research is vital as NASA plans to return to the Moon within the next decade. Moreover, the intention is that the moon will be continuously inhabited by astronauts. And then there is a need for food. So the question of whether crops can thrive in lunar soil is crucial. The answer turned out to be “yes”: it is possible to create a botanical garden on the moon. With the caveat that moon plants were clearly struggling with stress, Paul says. As a result, some of these plants, for example, were smaller and grew more slowly. They were also more likely to be stunted.
More research is needed, including answering the inverted question of whether growing plants will change lunar soil. Or, as Stephen Ellardo put it: “How will the minerals in lunar soil when a plant grows on it react with the water and nutrients added? Will adding water make mineralogy more suitable for plants?”
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