Scientists from the University of Florida (USA) for the first time in history They succeeded in growing plants in the laboratory on lunar soil brought back by the Apollo missions, A milestone that opens the door to significant advances in agricultural experimentation outside of our planet.
In a paper published in the journal Communications Biology, the researchers showed that: plants can successfully sprout and grow in lunar soil. The study details how plants biologically respond to soil on the Moon, also known as lunar regolith, which is radically different from soil found on Earth.
This work is the first step towards growing plants for food and oxygen one day on the Moon. or during space missions. This research comes as the Artemis program plans to return humans to the Moon.
“Artemis will require a better understanding of growing plants in space,” said Rob Ferl, one of the study’s authors and distinguished professor of horticultural sciences at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).
Anna-Lisa Paul, also one of the study’s authors and research professor of horticultural sciences at UF/IFAS, recalls that plants played an important role even in the early days of lunar exploration.
At the time, the plants were used to “show that soil samples brought back from the Moon did not harbor pathogens or other unknown components that could harm terrestrial life, but that these plants were only “pollinated” by lunar regolith and were never actually grown on it, Paul explains.
Paul and Ferl are internationally recognized experts on plants in space. They sent experiments on space shuttles, the International Space Station, and suborbital flights through UF’s Space Facility Laboratory.
“We could use the Moon as a hub or launch pad for longer space missions in the future. It makes sense that we want to use the land that’s already there to grow plants.” Ferl stresses. So what happens when plants are grown in lunar soil, which is completely outside of a plant’s evolutionary experience? What would plants do in the moon greenhouse? Can we have moon farmers?
To begin answering these questions, Ferl and Paul devised a seemingly simple experiment: sow seeds in lunar soil, add water, nutrients, and light, and record the results.
It had only twelve grams of lunar soil
It was not an easy task, because the scientists only had 12 grams. -just a few teaspoons- lunar soil to carry out the experiment. Borrowed from NASA, this soil was collected during missions to the Moon on Apollo 11, 12, and 17. Paul and Ferl applied three times over 11 years for the opportunity to work with the lunar regolith.
The small amount of soil, aside from its incalculable historical and scientific significance, meant that Paul and Ferl had to devise a carefully designed, small-scale experiment. To cultivate the little moon garden, they used thimble-sized holes in plastic containers normally used for cell growth.
Each well served as a flower pot. once filled each “pot” containing about one gram of lunar soilThe scientists moistened the soil with a nutrient solution and added a few seeds of the Arabidopsis plant.
Arabidopsis, the plant of choice
Arabidopsis is widely used in plant science as its genetic code has been fully mapped. Growing Arabidopsis in lunar soil has allowed researchers to better understand how soil affects plants down to the level of gene expression.
As points of comparison, the researchers placed Arabidopsis on JSC-1A, a terrestrial substance that mimics real lunar soil, as well as simulated Martian soils and terrestrial soils from extreme environments. Plants grown in these non-lunar soils were the control group for the experiment.
Before the experiment, the researchers They were unsure whether the seeds planted in the lunar land would sprout. But almost all of them did.
“We were surprised. We didn’t expect that,” Paul says. “He told us that lunar soils don’t disrupt hormones and signals related to plant germination.”
But over time, the researchers observed differences between the plants grown in the lunar soil and the control group. For example, some plants grown on lunar soil were smaller, slower growing, or more diverse in size than their counterparts.
These were all physical signs that the plants were working to deal with the chemical and structural makeup of the lunar soil, Paul explains. This was further confirmed when the researchers analyzed the plants’ gene expression patterns.
“On a genetic level, plants have evolved the tools typically used to cope with stressors.We can infer that plants perceive the lunar soil environment as stressful, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, Paul explains. Ultimately, we want to use gene expression data to help determine how we can increase the stress response of plants, particularly crops, to the level where they can grow in lunar soil with little impact on their environment. Health”.
Ferl and Paul, who collaborated on the study with Stephen Elardo, associate professor of geology at UF, say how plants respond to lunar soil may have to do with where the soil is collected.
For example, the researchers found that: The plants that showed the most signs of stress were those that grew in what lunar geologists call mature lunar soil.. These mature soils are the most exposed to the cosmic wind, which changes their composition. On the other hand, plants grown on relatively less mature soils did better.
Elardo says that plants growing in lunar soils can also change soils. “The moon is a very, very dry place. How will the minerals in the lunar soil, with the added water and nutrients, respond to growing a plant on it? Will adding water make the mineralogy more hospitable to plants?” ? she is wondering.
Follow-up studies will be based on these and other questions. For now, scientists are celebrating taking the first steps towards growing plants on the Moon.
“We wanted to do this experiment because we’ve been asking ourselves for years: Can plants grow on lunar soil?” explains Ferl. “Apparently the answer is yes.”
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