Breakthrough: Scientists grow plant-life in soil from the moon

More than five decades after astronauts brought the last moon-rock samples to Earth, scientists have successfully grown plants in lunar soil from three Apollo missions for the first time.

For this study, researchers used samples of lunar soil called regolith, taken during Apollo 11, 12, and 17, between 1969 and 1972.

In all three samples, they grew a common lab specimen, called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana). For visual analysis, scientists also grew the same plant in a soil made from volcanic ash found on Earth called JSC-1A by NASA, meant to simulate Lunar soil, which is powdery and full of abrasive glass.

“The fragments are quite sharp and angular,” Stephen Elardo, a geologist at the University of Florida and an author of the study, said at the news conference. The lunar soil also contains bits of metallic iron, and the glass fragments trap pockets of gasses, which volcanic ash doesn’t fully replicate.

The researchers were able to grow the thale cress in all three samples. The plant fared the worst in the Apollo 11 soil, and grew best in the Apollo 17 sample, since 1st sample was more mature, and was more exposed to the lunar surface, being more heavily bombarded by cosmic rays. Though, all the plants grown in lab-made volcanic soil grew notably faster and larger.

However, genetic analysis showed that plants grown in lunar soil expressed many genes related to salt and metal-associated oxidative stress. When they grouped the plants by appearance, they found that plants that looked the worst — tiny and a reddish-black color — also had the most genetic changes associated with stress.

The results suggested that the plant was bounded to adapt to harsh conditions of soil that was more mature and showed more genetic differences. If this is true, the researchers argued, soil from younger parts of the moon could be more effective in growing healthy plants.

Although even the healthiest of these plants would be stunted and slow-growing, the food they produce would not necessarily be harmful.

Eating plants grown in lunar soil like this may be “likely not to pose any threat to humans,” Anna-Lisa Paul, a horticultural scientist at the University of Florida, said at the news conference. “It’s hard to say, but it’s more likely that the chemicals that plants produce in response to stresses are ones that also help human stresses as well.”

It’s also concluded that lunar soil isn’t an effective substitute. Despite the ability to take plants successfully to the moon and grow them there is how future missions would be supported to stay on the lunar surface for a while without a resupply. Other potential uses include purifying air by removing Carbon Dioxide humans breathe out.

Growing plants in lunar soil permanently changes its chemistry, which is why an experiment like this was never previously done with the “precious natural treasures” that are the Apollo samples, Paul said. But the exact chemistry of lunar soil is unique and can provide scientists with insights that simulated soil never could. 




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