Scientists Sprout First-Ever Seedlings in Apollo Moon Dirt

Scientists Sprout First-Ever Seedlings in Apollo Moon Dirt thumbnail

Twelve g of the moon arrived in an undecorated UPS box at Robert Ferl’s laboratory.

Ferl was a University of Florida horticulturist who had waited over a decade for this moment. The small box of dirt, postmarked from NASA, held some of the last remaining unopened samples of moon dust, or regolith, collected by astronauts on the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions. Ferl recalls that he lifted the sample with shaking hands despite months of practice. It’s scary, freaky stuff. He says, “What happens if that’s dropped?” Ferl and his team were on the verge of becoming the first to grow plants in lunar soil.

The experiment was approved as part of a recent boom for lunar research, which is fueled by NASA’s Artemis program. It aims to send humans back there later in the decade. NASA is attempting to explore the moon sustainably this time by creating outposts on the lunar surface for longer-duration stays. Also, a Gateway lunar-orbiting space station will be created. These are both vital dress rehearsals for future astronautical missions to Mars, according to the space agency. Scientists believe that longer missions will require a reliable source of food. “All human exploration has been driven to the ability of crews to stay fed,” says Gil Cauthorn from the Astrobotany International research Initiative, Osaka, Japan.

Ferl’s research, which was published in Communications Biology in May, offers an important first step in that journey, ultimately proving that plants can grow in moon soil. However, the seedlings did not thrive in only regolith, which means that future lunar farmers will have to fertilize their soil before they plant crops.

In order to test the moon soil, Ferl and his team divvied up the samples into 12 pots of 900 milligrams apiece and planted in each seeds from Arabidopsis thaliana (a hardy relative of mustard and cabbage that is a standard “model organism” in biology). All of the seeds germinated successfully to their delight. However, the seedlings had difficulties with the next stage of growth: establishing a healthy root network. Ferl states that this proved to be quite difficult. The Apollo sprouts showed signs of soil oxidation, salt and metal oxidation, and were slow to grow. This is due to the unusual conditions in which lunar regolith was formed. It was bombarded by meteorites, solar winds and cosmic rays for billions of year. It is also crucial that it has the missing ingredients, namely water and microbes.

Microbes make up the most important component of any soil. Gretchen North, a plant physiological ecologist from Occidental College, said that microbes play a significant role in soil. She was not part of the study. Symbiotic bacteria helps plants regulate growth hormones and fight off pathogens. They also absorb vital nutrients like nitrogen. However, the lunar regolith does not have a natural microbiome. Moon dirt plants were unable to maintain nutrient uptake and stress management without this complex biological network.

Lacking water can also affect the soil’s consistency. Regolith, a strictly non-biological material, can become very dense like cement if water is added. Cauthorn states that it is difficult to get the stuff to not turn into a rock.

However, this does not mean that lunar regolith cannot be turned into a soil. You can add nutrients to the soil or compost crops to encourage microbe growth. Even if the soil is as it is, it is possible for plants to survive for several generations once they are established. North states that crop plants are capable of “tightening their belts” and becoming smaller. But, they won’t do the important things we need for .”

without proper soil development.

Despite these nutritional and microbiological obstacles to lunar agriculture North, who studied plant growth under simulated Martian conditions believes that the moon is more fertile than the Red Planet’s rusty soil. Martian regolith contains perchlorate, which is an oxidative compound that can stunt plants’ growth and cause damage to humans.

Soon, space-based life and work will be possible thanks to the ability of plants to grow in space. Plants could be useful components of a life-support system, both in space and on long-haul interplanetary journeys. They can produce oxygen and clean the air of carbon dioxide. “Growing plants is part of learning how you can survive and thrive in space environments that you’re expected,” Jake Bleacher (chief exploration scientist at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate), who was not involved in the study, said. Furthermore, techniques for growing crops from otherworldly-sourced regolith could be used to manage agriculture in very nutrient- and/or water-depleted soils here on Earth.

” Most of us aren’t going to space,” Cauthorn states. “But, if we can engineer the way to produce these types of crops in such an unforgiving climate–like on the lunar surface–we could apply that to our food challenges in places that just can’t grow it .”

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In the future Ferl would like more research on how life might develop in barren extraterrestrial soils. For now, Ferl and his colleagues are grateful for the chance to experiment with the lunar soil. He says, “It was and continues be a real privilege for us.”


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