(ORDO NEWS) — More than 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the rocky surface of the moon and sampled lunar soil, scientists have announced that they have succeeded in keeping the mission alive in a new way.
A University of Florida (UF) geologist and horticulturist has successfully grown plants in regolith, or lunar soil, collected during the original Apollo landings.
The team published their findings today in the journal Communications Biology; the results could influence NASA’s return to the Moon in 2024.
Obtaining regolith was not an easy task, as Anna-Lisa and Paul Rob Furl of UF’s Space Plant Laboratory approached NASA three times in 11 years to give them the opportunity to work with soil.
Earth’s supply of regolith is limited, and it is carefully stored at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where it is kept under nitrogen to prevent oxidation and pollution.
Scientists around the world can borrow samples, but NASA space biologist Sharmila Bhattacharya says the substance is considered a very valuable material.
Regolith is markedly different from Earth’s soil, in part because it is bombarded by radioactive solar winds. It requires a mixture of fertilizers called “Murashige-Skoog medium” to grow plants in it, as well as regular watering. These additives are designed to compensate for the lack of essential nutrients in the regolith.
On Earth, the concept of “soil” implies many additional things. It also has organic materials, samples of microorganisms, the remains of other plants, and so on,” says Bhattacharya. “While regolith, strictly speaking, is the material on the surface of the Moon or Mars.”
NASA, which helped fund the study, provided the team with 12 grams of regolith in 2021. These teaspoons of soil were divided into thimble-sized plastic wells that are commonly used for cell examination.
After planting the seeds, the scientists transferred the well plates to terrariums in a tightly controlled plant growing room.
Initially, the UF researchers were unsure if the seeds would germinate as the experiment was the first of its kind. But already 60 hours after planting, all the seeds in the regolith germinated and gave tiny sprouts.
Perhaps part of the team’s success is due to the seeds they chose. “The plant that was used for this is actually a very commonly used model organism for studies on the surface of the Earth as well as in space,” says Bhattacharya.
“In the past, for example, even on NASA’s side, we sent Arabidopsis to the International Space Station.” These experiments have studied everything from the extraorbital life cycle of greenery to the effect of gravity on plant parts.
Arabidopsis plants are easy and inexpensive to grow, but they are also suitable for research due to their genome.
The entire genetic sequence of this species is much smaller than that of other plants and well mapped, making it convenient for comparative studies.
When it turned out that the plants in the lunar regolith had more difficulty than the control plants (which were planted in a regolith simulator called JSC-1A), the researchers closely examined the RNA from both batches.
“When the team looked at the changes in the RNA, it became clear that although the plants manage to grow in this material, elements of stress are present,” says Bhattacharya. “The cells turned on these reactions, as in oxidative stress.”
Cellular stress scores were just one of the signs of growth problems. Plants grown in regolith also showed stunted growth, shorter roots, and pigmentation on the plant. The stress from growing in the lunar soil manifested itself both externally and internally in the RNA of the plants.
Bhattacharya says that in recent decades, new tools have been developed in the field of molecular biology to modify the cellular components of plants. If researchers can pinpoint which gene pathways are being stressed, they could use genetic engineering to help plants thrive under stressful conditions.
Engineering, or finding plants better suited to grow in regolith, could be the key to lunar farming, which Bhattacharya says is a step towards longer spaceflight and possibly even off-world settlement.
But the moon isn’t quite ready for terraforming yet. Since there is no atmosphere on the Moon, any plants grown in the vacuum of space would have to be grown indoors with humans, with access to oxygen and water.
With further research into proper landing procedures and the wonders of the lunar soil, the Moon could very well be the place where food and oxygen will be by the time humans set foot on the Moon again.
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