Popular science fiction has depicted the colonization and even the rowing of crops on Mars many times. From the books of Isaac Asimov to The Martian, the Red Planet has pervaded artistic minds as the next place for humans to call home.
But what about the closest place to Earth? What about the moon?
As it turns out, some of us might be able to live off of our nearest natural satellite. For the first time in history, a team of scientists from the University of Florida has successfully grown plants in soil from the Moon.
Professors Rob Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul of the University of Florida only had 12 grams of Moon soil to work with, on loan from NASA collected from the Apollo Missions, which they applied for three times. This made Ferl and Paul’s experiment particularly small and careful, for such a significant historical and scientific moment.
They put their lunar soil in pots about the size of a thimble, moistened it with a nutrient-rich solution, and planted Arabidopsis. This is a widely used plant in the sciences because its genetic code has been fully mapped, giving Ferl and Paul a better understanding of exactly what is going on chemically, biologically, and genetically. As a control, they planted Arabidopsis in Earth soil comparable to Moon soil.
Nearly all of the plants in the lunar soil sprouted.
“We were amazed. We did not predict that” Paul said. “That told us that the lunar soils didn’t interrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.”
The plants in the lunar soil, however, did grow more slowly and smaller than their terrestrial counterparts. Plants were working harder to grow in the lunar soil.
“At the genetic level, the plants were pulling out the tools typically used to cope with stressors, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, so we can infer that the plants perceive the lunar soil environment as stressful,” Paul said.
Some among the lunar soil plants were also more stressed than others, which the researchers attributed to their being in “more mature” lunar soil, which was soil that had been closer to the surface of the Moon and more exposed to cosmic wind, altering their makeup. Further study will be needed not only to see how different ranges of lunar soil can grow plants but also how plants might affect the very dry makeup of the moon.
There have been other benefits of this study, though, besides growing plants.
Life in space
This experiment brings researchers one step closer to growing not only plants but oxygen on the Moon. For travel going further and further into space, many scientists believe that the Moon would be an invaluable jumping-off point, which would be made easier by cultivating more sustainable living conditions on its surface.
This Moon soil experiment also furthers insight into how plants can be grown in space in general.
“So, what happens when you grow plants in lunar soil, something that is totally outside of a plant’s evolutionary experience? What would plants do in a lunar greenhouse? Could we have lunar farmers?” said Ferl.
Source Study: University of Florida News — A first: Scientists grow plants in soil from the moon – News – University of Florida (ufl.edu)