When NASA broadcastsback to the lunar surface in the years to come, they should be able to grow their own lettuce. That’s just one implication of a historic experiment in which scientists used samples of lunar surface material, called regolith, to successfully grow crops here on Earth.
Seeds of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, related to mustard green, have been deposited in tiny samples of regolith collected on three separate Apollo missions half a century ago.
As the seeds germinated and grew, they didn’t exactly thrive.
“Lunar soils don’t contain many nutrients needed for plant growth,” Stephen Elardo of the University of Florida said in a news conference on Wednesday.
Elardo is co-authoring a paper presenting the research published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology, along with Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl.
Although the plants grew under stress, they found a way relatively quickly, with a little help from the team providing 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, said in a statement. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how amazed we were! Every plant—whether in a lunar sample or in a control—looked the same until about day six.”
At the end of their first week, the plants in regolith showed slower growth, stunted roots and leaves, and some red spots. Later genetic analysis would confirm that the greens were under stress.
Lunar regolith is very fine-grained and powdery, but don’t be fooled, these grains are also sharp-edged. Inhaling moondust can damage your lungs, and the stuff isn’t particularly hospitable to plants either.
“Ultimately, we want to use the gene expression data to investigate how we can improve stress responses to a level where plants – particularly crops – are able to grow on lunar soil with very little impact on their health,” Paul added .
According to Ferl, growing crops on the moon is key to a long-term stay on the moon because it helps provide astronauts and other visitors not only with food but also with clean air and water.
“When we go somewhere in space, we always take our agriculture with us,” said Ferl, also of the University of Florida. “Showing that plants grow on lunar soil is actually a big step in that direction.”