NASA scientists have grown a plant in lunar soil brought to Earth 50 years ago.
When the Apollo missions were changing our knowledge of space and the Moon, there was also a visionary plan: to bring back lunar soil samples. These samples, known as regolith, were brought to Earth by various Apollo missions and since then have been studied by scientists across the globe using ever improving technology.
Now, in another first, and 50 years after the last Moon mission, scientists have successfully used the soil samples to grow plants. They have grown Arabidopsis thaliana (native to Eurasia and Africa, is a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) in the nutrient-poor lunar regolith.
“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”
Scientists at the University of Florida have made a breakthrough discovery — decades in the making — that could both enable space exploration and benefit humanity. “Here we are, 50 years later, completing experiments that were started back in the Apollo labs,” said Robert Ferl, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a communicating author on a paper published on May 12, 2022, in Communications Biology. “We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”
According to NASA, “The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Plants can grow in lunar regolith. They were not as robust as plants grown in Earth soil, or even as those in the control group grown in a lunar simulant made from volcanic ash, but they did indeed grow. And by studying how the plants responded in the lunar samples, the team hopes to go on to answer the second question as well, paving the way for future astronauts to someday grow more nutrient-rich plants on the Moon and thrive in deep space.”
“To explore further and to learn about the solar system we live in, we need to take advantage of what’s on the Moon, so we don’t have to take all of it with us,” said Jacob Bleacher, the Chief Exploration Scientist supporting NASA’s Artemis program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. According to Bleacher, this is also the reason NASA is sending robotic missions to the Moon’s South Pole where it’s believed there may be water that can be used by future astronauts. “What’s more, growing plants is the kind of thing we’ll study when we go. So, these studies on the ground lay the path to expand that research by the next humans on the Moon.”
The plant Arabidopsis thaliana is a well studied plant due to its small size and ease of growth. It has been used as a model organism for plant biology research and scientists even know what its genes look like, as well as how it behaves in various environments, even space.
To grow the plants the team used samples collected by the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions. Only a gram of regolith allotted for each plant, and water and seeds added to these on gram samples. The trays were then put into terrarium boxes in a clean room, with a nutrient solution added daily.
“After two days, they started to sprout!” said Anna-Lisa Paul, who is also a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, and who is first author on the paper. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.”
However, after day six it became clear that the plants were not as robust as the control group growing in volcanic ash. They also grew more slowly and had stunted roots and leaves, as well as red pigmentation.
According to the NASA statement, “After 20 days, just before the plants started to flower, the team harvested the plants, ground them up, and studied the RNA. In a biological system, genes are decoded in multiple steps. First, the genes, or DNA, are transcribed into RNA. Then the RNA is translated into a protein sequence. These proteins are responsible for carrying out many of the biological processes in a living organism. Sequencing the RNA revealed the patterns of genes that were expressed, which showed that the plants were indeed under stress and had reacted the way researchers have seen Arabidopsis respond to growth in other harsh environments, such as when soil has too much salt or heavy metals. Additionally, the plants reacted differently depending on which sample – each collected from different areas on the Moon – was used. Plants grown in the Apollo 11 samples were not as robust as the other two sets. Nonetheless, the plants did grow.”
NASA says, “This research opens the door not only to someday growing plants in habitats on the Moon, but to a wide range of additional questions. Can understanding which genes plants need to adjust to growing in regolith help us understand how to reduce the stressful nature of lunar soil? Are materials from different areas of the Moon more conducive to growing plants than others? Could studying lunar regolith help us understand more about the Mars regolith and potentially growing plants in that material as well? All of these are questions that the team hopes to study next, in support of the future astronauts traveling to the Moon.”
“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”
This research is part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program, or ANGSA, an effort to study the samples returned from the Apollo Program in advance of the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon’s South Pole.