If you’re like me and have trouble keeping a houseplant alive, the idea of growing plants in lunar soil seems out of this world.
A team of scientists from the University of Florida have shown that it can be done, by successfully cultivating the plant Arabidopsis thaliana in soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 lunar missions. Arabidopsis thalianaalso known as Thale’s watercress, is a small flowering plant belonging to the Brassicaceae family (which includes mustard, cabbage, and radish), and is a valuable plant used in many plant experiments.
Plants are essential in our ambitions for extended space exploration. As model organisms, they provide insight into space-related phenomena such as gravity and radiation, but plants also provide components necessary 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 soils to understand how plants could grow on the moon’s surface. The researchers also used a lunar soil simulant sample of similar composition made from Earth’s volcanic ash as a control. The soils of the Apollo mission each had their own characteristics: the samples from Apollo 11 had been exposed to the lunar surfaces longer than those of the Apollo missions 12 or 17, because samples were taken from different layers of soil during each mission. .
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 emerging from the seed). As early as the sixth day, researchers found stunted roots in lunar samples compared to volcanic ash plants. From the eighth day, aerial (above ground) growth became slower and more variable: lunar plants took longer to develop leaves and also developed smaller leaves compared to terrestrial controls. Plants grown in Apollo 12 and 17 samples did better than those grown in Apollo 11 soil.
A genetic analysis of the least healthy lunar plants revealed that more than 1,000 stress-related genes were expressed at different levels compared to volcanic ash plants. Apollo 11 plants also expressed more genes differently compared to Apollo 12 and 17 samples. Of these genes, 71% were associated with stress from salts, metals, and reactive oxygen-containing molecules. . The researchers believe this may be due to increased cosmic rays and solar wind which may have damaged the lunar soils.
While plants thrived less, experience proved that lunar soil can support plant life; an important step in our understanding of the Moon. Unfortunately, at the time of publication, the researchers had no comments on the flavor or recipes for mooncress.
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