For the First Time, Scientists Planted Plants in the Dirt of the Moon.  It Didn't Go Great - ScienceAlert

When the Artemis program returns humans to the Moon in (hopefully) a few years, there will be huge logistics that will need to be addressed to keep these fragile creatures alive in such a bad environment.

At least on the food issue. The space agencies involved with the International Space Station are very experienced, so far, in providing pre-packed provisions, but there are advantages to having access to fresh food, including both physical and mental health.

If lunar soil will prove to be a durable medium for planting fresh crops, that is surprising. So a team of scientists used a few precious grams of actual lunar samples collected during Apollo missions to try to plant plants – specifically, thale cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana.

“For future, longer space missions, we could use the Moon as a hub or launching pad. It makes sense that we would want to use the land that is already there to plant plants,” said horticultural scientist Rob Ferl of the University. of Florida.

“So, what happens when you plant plants in lunar soil, something that is completely absent from a plant’s evolutionary experience? What do plants do in a lunar greenhouse? Can we have lunar farmers? “

Well, spoiler: The dirt of the moon, also known as lunar regolith, is less good at growing plants. But this research is only a first step toward one day growing plants on the Moon into an exciting sci-fi future.

The current volume of lunar sample material here on Earth is relatively small, and therefore important and highly valued.

Ferl and his colleagues, fellow University of Florida horticultural scientist Anna-Lisa Paul and geologist Stephen Elardo, were granted a loan of just 12 grams of valuables, after three applications made over 11 years. .

It requires very little, very rigorous experimentation-a mini-garden of Arabidopsis. They carefully divided their samples to distribute between 12 thimble-sized pots, to each of which a nutrient solution and some seeds were added.

Control groups of seeds were also implanted in terrestrial soil from extreme environments, and soil simulations (a terrestrial material used to simulate the properties of extraterrestrial soils).

For the experiment, the team used a Mars soil simulant, and a lunar simulant named JSC-1A. This is important, because previous experiments have shown that plants can grow well on the same type of simulant, but subtle differences can mean that the real thing is a different story.

(Paul et al., Communications Biology, 2022)

Above: Plants growing in the three rows of the lunar soil and the simulant of the soil.

That really seems to be the case. To the researchers ’surprise, almost all of the seeds planted in the moon samples sprouted, but that’s where things changed. Instead of growing happily, the seedlings seemed to be smaller, slower to grow, and more varied in size than the plants grown in the lunar simulant.

When the team took the plants to perform genetic analysis, they found out why.

“At the genetic level, plants take tools commonly used to cope with stressors, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, so we can conclude that plants see the lunar earth environment as stressful. , ”Paul said.

“Ultimately, we want to use gene expression data to help address how we can improve stress responses to the level at which plants – especially crops – can grow on lunar soil with very little impact on their health. “

The lunar samples used by the researchers came from three different locations on the Moon, at different layers of depth from the surface, collected by Apollo missions 11, 12, and 17.

Interestingly, this seems to have an effect on how well plants respond to the soil. Those planted in the ground closest to the surface, from Apollo 11, are even worse; one plant even died. This is the layer of lunar regolith that is most exposed to cosmic rays and solar wind, which is detrimental to it.

In contrast, seeds planted in less exposed soil were noticeably better, although the results were still not as good as plants grown in terrestrial volcanic ash. This information could help scientists figure out how to best plant plants on the Moon, as well as develop ways to make the lunar soil more plant -friendly.

We are not there yet. Further research into identifying and optimizing lunar soil for plant growth needs to take place before we can consider using Moon manure to plant crops. But now scientists have a clearer understanding of what they are doing, and what the next steps should be.

“We wanted to do this experiment because, for years, we’ve been asking this question: Will plants grow in lunar soil,” Ferl said. “The answer, it turns out, is yes.”

The research was published in Biology of Communication.

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