Plants from lunar soil from Apollo missions

Plants from lunar soil from Apollo missions

If, like me, you’re struggling to keep a houseplant alive, the thought of growing plants in lunar soil seems out of this world.

A team of scientists from the University of Florida has shown that it can be done by successfully breeding the plant Arabidopsis thaliana in soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 lunar missions. Arabidopsis thalianaalso known as thale cress, is a small flowering plant belonging to the Brassicaceae family (which includes mustard, cabbage and radish) and is a valuable plant used in numerous plant experiments.

Plants are essential to our ambitions for expanded space exploration. As model organisms, they provide insight into space-related phenomena such as gravity and radiation, but plants also provide necessary components for human habitation, such as food, oxygen, water recycling, and carbon dioxide sequestration.

While previous alien plant experiments relied on hydroponic setups, this experiment used lunar soil to understand how plants might grow on the lunar surface. The researchers also used a lunar soil simulation sample of similar composition, made from volcanic ash from Earth, as a control. The soils from the Apollo mission each had their own characteristics: samples from Apollo 11 were exposed to lunar surfaces longer than those from either Apollo 12 or 17 missions because samples were taken from different soil layers during each mission.

These video clips show the researchers working with the lunar soil when planting Arabidopsis (thale cress) seeds and plants derived therefrom.

So how did the moon garden grow?

The results were mixed. All samples germinated normally 48-60 hours after planting, with moon seedlings showing normal stems and cotyledons (the first leaves to emerge from the seed). From the sixth day, the researchers found stunted roots in the lunar samples compared to the volcanic ash plants. From day eight, aerial (aboveground) growth became slower and more variable: the lunar plants took longer to develop leaves and also grew smaller leaves compared to the terrestrial controls. Plants grown in the Apollo 12 and 17 samples performed better than those grown in Apollo 11 soil.

A genetic analysis of the least healthy-looking moon plants revealed that over 1,000 stress-related genes were expressed at different levels to the volcanic ash plants. The Apollo 11 plants also expressed more genes differently than the Apollo 12 and 17 samples. 71% of these genes were linked to stress caused by salts, metals and reactive oxygen-containing molecules. Researchers believe this could be due to increased cosmic rays and solar wind, which may have damaged the lunar soils.

While the plants flowered less, the experiment proved that lunar soil can support plant life; an important step in our understanding of the moon. Unfortunately, researchers had no comment on mooncress flavor or recipes at the time of publication.

moon plant soils
Researcher Rob Ferl weighs lunar soil. The soil samples had been sealed in vials since the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions to the moon. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS
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Harvesting an Arabidopsis plant growing in lunar soil. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS
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Placing a plant grown during the experiment in a vial for eventual genetic analysis. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

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