In a NASA-funded study, scientists at the University of Florida grew plants in soil taken from the moon, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.
The study is critical to NASA’s long-term goals for human space exploration, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release. The research could also have implications for plants growing in harsh conditions on Earth, he added.
“We will need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” Nelson said.
In the study, the researchers planted the seeds of Arabidopsis thaliana – a plant related to mustard greens, as well as other cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli and cauliflower – in lunar soil, which was taken directly from the moon during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions .
To compare, the researchers also planted the seeds in a lunar simulant, designed to closely mimic real lunar soil.
Anna-Lisa Paul, a research professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida and first author of the study, described the moon samples as “fine” and “dusty”. It also “sticks to everything,” Paul added.
The seeds started to germinate a few days after planting.
“We planted them, went away for a few days, and then when we first came back to take a look, it was amazing to see every group of plants, every seedling sprouted,” said Paul, who is also the director of the University of Florida’s Center for Interdisciplinary Biotechnology Research.
Although all of the seeds germinated, those that grew in lunar soil did not grow as “robust” as those in control, according to the release. Some of the plants grown in the lunar soil samples had “stunted” roots and leaves, as well as some “reddish pigmentation,” according to the release.
After the plants had grown for 20 days, the researchers harvested the plants and prepared to study the plant’s RNA. The patterns of genes expressed matched how the researchers had seen Arabidopsis react to stress before in other harsh environments, such as when the ground contains excess salt or heavy metals, depending on the release.
“Now that we have lunar soil that has been in contact with biology, we can begin to ask the question: how would you do and how difficult would it be to mitigate the adverse effects that we have seen?” said Robert Ferl, assistant vice president for research at the University of Florida and author of the study.