In giant leap forwards, scientists grow plants in Moon soil | Space News

The groundbreaking experiment sees seeds sprout in lunar samples collected during NASA’s Apollo missions decades ago.

Scientists have for the first time grown seeds in lunar soil collected by former moonwalkers from the US space agency NASA, an achievement that heralds the promise of using land plants to support human outposts on many planets. other worlds.

Researchers in the United States said on Thursday they had planted seeds of a small flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana – a type of watercress – in 12 small thimble-sized containers, each containing a small sample of material recovered during the Apollo missions in 1969 and 1972.

The Moon’s soil, also known as lunar regolith, has sharp particles and a lack of organic matter, very different from soil on Earth.

So we didn’t know if the seeds would germinate. But, after two days, they sprouted and grew.

Seeds planted in Earth’s volcanic ash for comparative study, left, grew faster than those in lunar soil, right [Tyler Jones/UF/IFAS via AP]

“When we first saw this abundance of green sprouts thrown across all the samples, it took our breath away,” said horticultural science professor Anna-Lisa Paul, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Biotechnology Research at the University. University of Florida and co-lead of the study published in the journal Communications Biology.

“Plants can grow in lunar regolith. This simple statement is huge and opens the door to future exploration using the resources in place on the Moon and possibly Mars,” she added.

NASA envisions a lasting human presence on the Moon

NASA is preparing to return to the Moon as part of the Artemis program, with the long-term goal of establishing a lasting human presence on its surface.

“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We will need to use the resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space.”

He added that the research was also an example of how NASA was working “to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is seen on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission
NASA is preparing to return to the Moon as part of the Artemis program, decades after people first set foot on Earth’s only natural satellite in 1969 [Neil Armstrong/NASA/Handout via Reuters]

At first, there were no outward differences in the early stages of growth between those seeds sown in regolith – composed mostly of crushed basalt rocks – and others sown for comparative study in the volcanic ash of the Earth with similar mineral composition and grain size.

But over time, differences emerged with comparison plants. Those planted in lunar soil were slower to grow and generally smaller, had more stunted roots, and were more likely to exhibit stress-related traits such as smaller leaves and dark red-black coloration not typical of a healthy growth.

They also showed gene activity indicative of stress, similar to plant responses to salt, metal, and oxidation.

“Even if plants could grow in regolith, they had to work metabolically hard to do so,” Paul said.

But the researchers stressed that the fact that they grew was remarkable and said the results gave hope that it might one day be possible to grow plants directly on the Moon, saving the expense of future space missions and to facilitate longer journeys.

A plant grown in lunar soil is placed in a flask at the University of Florida
Study offers hope that terrestrial plants could be used to support future human outposts in space [Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS/Handout via Reuters]

Study co-director Rob Ferl, assistant vice president for research at the University of Florida, said he felt “joy watching life do something that had never been done before. previously”.

“Seeing plants grow is an achievement in that it indicates that we can go to the moon and grow our food, clean our air and recycle our water using plants like we use them here on Earth. revelation in that it says life on earth is not limited to Earth,” he added.

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