Seeds of the mustard-related plant Arabidopsis thaliana were placed in tiny samples of lunar soil collected half a century ago on three different Apollo missions. While these seeds germinate and grow, they don’t fully thrive.
“The lunar soil doesn’t have many of the nutrients needed to support plant growth,” Stephen Elardo of the University of Florida said in a news release Wednesday.
Elardo was published on Thursday in thecommunication biology, along with Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl.
While the way the plants grew suggested they were stressed, they still found their way relatively quickly, with the help of the team providing them with light, water and nutrients.
“Two days later, they started sprouting!” 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 surprised we were! Every plant — whether it was the lunar sample or the control group — looked the same until the sixth day.”
At the end of the first week, the plants in the lunar soil showed slow growth, poorly developed roots and leaves, and some red spots. Later genetic analysis will confirm that these greens are under stress.
The grains of lunar soil are very fine and powdery, but these grains also have sharp edges. Breathing in lunar dust can damage your lungs, and these things aren’t particularly good for plant life.
Paul added: “Ultimately, we hope to use gene expression data to help address how we can improve stress responses so that plants — especially crops — can grow in lunar soil with little impact on their health.”
Growing plants on the moon is key to a long-term stay on the moon, Ferl said, not only helping to provide food for astronauts and other visitors, but also clean air and water.
“When we go to space somewhere, we always take our agriculture with us,” said Fer, also from the University of Florida. “Showing that plants will grow in lunar soil is actually a big step in that direction.”