Fifty-two years after mankind’s giant leap, a small sprout has taken root in lunar soil inside a Florida lab symbolizing the blossoming of a new-moon era.
On Thursday, NASA confirmed that scientists of the University of Florida have successfully grown plants using three samples of nutrient-poor, lunar dirt, also known as regolith.
“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”
The regolith samples were originally brought back to Earth during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions. UF scientist were able to grow the hardy and well-studied Arabidopsis thaliana, which is native to Eurasia and Africa and is a relative of mustard greens. Scientists chose arabidopsis because of how the plant reacts in harsh environments filled with metals or salt. Although NASA’s plantings weren’t very strong compared to arabidopsis grown in Earth soil or even lunar regolith simulants — usually composed with a composite of rocks including volcanic ash.
But the plants grew, and that’s a big step for scientists looking to eventually colonize the moon.
“Here we are, 50 years later, completing experiments that were started back in the Apollo labs,” said Robert Ferl, a UF professor in the Horticultural Sciences department. “We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”
Giving each seed about 1 gram of regolith each, scientists added and placed them into terrarium boxes.
Two days later scientists had sprouts.
“Everything sprouted,” said Anna-Lisa Paul, who a UF professor in Horticultural Sciences. “I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant — whether in a lunar sample or in a control — looked the same up until about day six.”
By the sixth day, the plants weren’t looking very strong. They grew slowly and had stunted roots. Some had stunted leaves with red reddish pigmentation.
Twenty days later, the UF team harvested the plants and ground them up to study their RNA, which revealed gene expressions of the plants under stress — something scientists expected to find. What did surprise them, however, was the plants grown from the Apollo 11 samples were not as robust as the other two sets.
Other scientists at the University of Central Florida are trying to study plants growing in harsh lunar regolith, as well, using a UCF developed simulant from its Exolith Lab. A UCF senior, Steven Elseid, successfully grew tiny French marigold plants in March using composite material from Greenland, Idaho and Arizona. Although, it wasn’t exactly clear as to why the plants were able to develop within the harsh soil, where previous attempts had failed.
Understanding plant growth in alien soil is key to NASA’s future missions if it is going to continue exploring the solar system, said NASA scientist Sharmila Bhattacharya.
“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration,” she said. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”