Scientists grow plants in lunar soil

NASA-funded study breaks new ground in plant research.


50 years ago, Apollo astronauts brought samples of the lunar surface material, known as regolith, back to Earth. Now, 50 years later, scientists successfully used three samples to grow plants. This is the first time they have successfully grown the plant in the nutrient-poor lunar regolith.

This breakthrough discovery- made by scientists at the University of Florida– is a step toward space exploration and benefits humanity.

However, the grown plants 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.

Studying how the plants respond in lunar soil can help scientists answer- how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “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. 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.”

Anna-Lisa Paul looking at the plates filled part with lunar soil
Rob Ferl, left, and Anna-Lisa Paul looking at the plates filled part with lunar soil and part with control soils, now under LED growing lights. At the time, the scientists did not know if the seeds would even germinate in lunar soil. Credits: UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

Scientists used samples of regolith collected during Apollo 11, 12, and 17 between 1969 and 1972. In all three samples, they grow the Arabidopsis thaliana

Only a gram of regolith is allotted for each plant. The team added water and then seeds to the samples. They then put the trays into terrarium boxes in a cleanroom. A nutrient solution was added daily.

Anna-Lisa Paul, a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida and the first author on the paper, said“After two days, they started to sprout! Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Whether in a lunar sample or control, every plant looked the same until about day six.”

After six days, it was clear that the plants were not as robust as the control group plants growing in volcanic ash, and the plants were growing differently depending on which type of sample they were in. Also, the plants grew more slowly and had stunted roots; additionally, some had stunted leaves and sported reddish pigmentation.

20 days later, scientists harvested the plants ground them up, and studied their RNA. First, the genes, or DNA, are transcribed into RNA. They then translated the RNA into a protein sequence responsible for carrying out many biological processes in a living organism. Sequencing the RNA revealed the gene expression patterns, which showed that the plants were indeed under stress. They reacted in the same way the Arabidopsis responded to the growth in other harsh environments.

Depending on the sample used, the plants reacted differently. Plants grown in the Apollo 11 samples were not as robust as the other two sets.

This research opens the door to someday growing plants in habitats on the Moon.

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. BPS helped support this work, supporting other fundamental plant research, including Veggie, PONDS, and Advanced Plant Habitat.

Journal Reference:

  1. Paul, AL., Elardo, S.M. & Full, R. Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration. Commun Biol 5, 382 (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03334-8
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