Scientists have grown plants in the moon's soil for the first time. Future space farmers could use their insights to grow plants on other worlds.
In a new study, published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology, researchers at the University of Florida planted seeds in samples of soil from the moon, which was brought to Earth a half-century ago by the Apollo astronauts.
The lunar soil collected during the Apollo 11 and 12 missions was used in the experiment along with a control group of volcanic soil from Earth. Thale cress is a weedy plant that is often used in science due to its fully mapped genetic code. Within three days, the seeds sprouted.
The research team wrote that they were filled with wonder as they handled the samples.
Rob Ferl, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, is one of the study authors.
We may use the moon as a launching pad in the future. Ferl said that it makes sense to use the soil that is already there to grow plants. In a greenhouse, what would plants do? Could we have lunar farmers?
Researchers found that the plants grew better in volcanic ash thanlunar soil. They could grow.
Plants grow in lunar regolith. Anna-Lisa Paul, a research professor of horticultural sciences at University of Florida and co-author of the study, told reporters at a press conference that they respond as if they are growing in a stressed situation.
The plants grown in lunar dirt were smaller than those grown on Earth. Many of their leaves were discolored, indicative of stress and ill-health. Plants grown in lunar soil have genes related to salt and oxidative stress.
The moon's soil is very poor in water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which is vastly different from the soil on Earth. Stephen Elardo, assistant professor of geology at University of Florida and co-author of the study, said at the press conference that naturally lunar soils don't have a lot of nutrients that are needed to support plant growth. It would hurt your lungs. He said that you wouldn't want to put it in your garden to grow tomatoes.
The plants grown in lunar soil were stressed but still sprouted and grew. Researchers could use the lessons from the milestone to support human outposts in other worlds.
We are a long way from space farmers tilling lunar soil and living off the land. Oxygen and water are not always available for plants to thrive on the moon. Research on lunar gardening could help would-be space travelers grow food during long-term missions.
Sharmila Bhattacharya, chief scientist for Astrobionics at NASA, who was not a part of the study, told CNN that they need to work out how to make the plants grow even better. Is there other plants that can adapt better to these regolith environments, and if so, what do they have that makes them more robust?
Each new finding leads to more unique and innovative results down the road, which we can use to improve our future space exploration missions.