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Moon Gardening: Plants Grown in Lunar Soil for the First Time

Is it time to move to the moon?

Credit: YouTube/University of Florida

For the first time ever, scientists have grown plant life on extraterrestrial soil.

A research group in Gainesville, Florida’s University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Studies used soil samples collected from the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions to the Earth’s moon to sprout and grow plant life in lunar soil.

Specifically, these scientists have grown the small flowering thale cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana, often considered a weed. Thale cress can often be found on the side of roads or in undeveloped plots of land, but now, it can also be found taking root in lunar soil in a Florida lab as well. 

Credit: YouTube/University of Florida

An article published in Communications Biology outlined the nuances of this process. According to the research scientists, growing thale cress in lunar soil didn’t come easily. The project revealed lunar plant growth to be incredibly stressful for the plants, resulting in severe stress morphologies due to the unfamiliar soil content.

This experiment has been in the works for almost 15 years. A decade and a half ago, scientists first submitted their research proposal requesting lunar soil samples. After a long wait, their request was finally agreed to only 18 months ago in late 2020. The team was given 12 grams (or 2.7 teaspoons) of lunar soil collected on the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions to the moon.

UF researchers only requested 4 grams of soil total in their original proposal. NASA’s sample curator Ryan Zeigler knew they needed more. He gave them three times as much.

“That made a huge difference in enabling us to take a deeper look into the science and the effects of lunar regolith on plants that we would have otherwise been able to do,” said Paul.

Credit: YouTube/University of Florida

Before this study, Anna-Lisa Paul explained, plant growth had only been used to disprove the presence of pathogens in lunar soil, not the capacity of the soil itself to support plant life. Anna-Lisa Paul is a research professor of horticulture at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Studies. She co-authored the study alongside Rob Ferl.

Because of the small soil quantity, the plants were grown and studied in plastic trays otherwise used to culture cells. The small wells were scarcely larger than thimbles. Each thimble was given one gram of lunar soil, some nutrients and water, and a few seeds of Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress. Almost every single soil well had growth.

Paul was shocked: “We did not predict that. That told us the lunar soils didn’t interrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.”

The thale cress, however, did struggle to grow. Seedlings showed various levels of stress. Almost all grew slower and were smaller than average thale cress plants with stunted root growth. Certain spouts were tinged reddish-black from the stress, and the genomes of three of the plants had more than 1,000 genes that indicate high levels of stress.

Credit: YouTube/University of Florida

A few plants even turned purple in an attempt to cope with oxidative stress. The stressed-out purple plants were grown in mature lunar soil from Apollo 11’s mission, soil from a harsher lunar climate. Plants were grown in Apollo 12 and 17 samples from a less extreme environment, however, did not have as severe stress responses.

As Paul noted, “Even the plants that looked healthy were struggling to stay looking healthy. They grew in the lunar regolith, but they had to deal with it at a metabolic level in order to maintain that kind of health.”

However, the study opens many doors to lunar possibilities. As research professor and study coauthor Rob Ferl asked of the growing possibilities for lunar exploration: “[W]hat 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?”

Interested in reading more about the latest scientific discoveries? Click here to read about the strange phenomenon that washes creepy dolls ashore on Texas beaches.

Written By

Makenna Dykstra (she/her) is currently pursuing her M.A. in English Literature at Tulane University in New Orleans. She writes journalism and poetry.

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