When NASA sendsback on the surface of the moon in the next few years, they should be able to grow their own salad. That’s just one offshoot of a landmark experiment in which scientists used samples of material from the lunar surface, called regolith, to successfully grow plants here on Earth.
The seeds of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is related to mustard greens, were deposited in small regolith samples collected on three different Apollo missions half a century ago.
While the seeds germinated and grew, they didn’t exactly thrive.
“Moon soils don’t have many of the nutrients that are needed to support plant growth,” Stephen Elardo of the University of Florida said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Elardo is co-author of a paper presenting the research published in the journal Communications Biology on Thursday, along with Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl.
While the plants grew in a way that indicated they were stressed, they still found a way relatively quickly, with a little help from the team that provided them with light, water and nutrients.
“After two days, they started to sprout!” Paul, who is also a professor of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, in a statement. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how amazed we were! Every plant, whether it was in a lunar sample or a control, looked the same until about day six.”
At the end of their first week, the regolith plants showed slower growth, stunted roots and leaves, and some red spots. Further genetic analysis would confirm that the greens were under stress.
Lunar regolith is very fine-grained and powdery, but don’t be fooled, those grains also have sharp edges. Breathing moondust can damage the lungs, and the material isn’t particularly hospitable to plant life, either.
“Ultimately, we’d like to use gene expression data to help address how we can enhance stress responses to the level where plants, particularly crops, can grow on lunar soil with very little impact on their health.” , Paul added.
Ferl says that growing plants on the moon is the key to a long stay on the moon by helping to provide not only food, but also clean air and water for astronauts and other visitors.
“When we go into space somewhere, we always take our agriculture with us,” said Ferl, also of the University of Florida. “Showing that plants will grow on lunar soil is actually a big step in that direction.”