The Apollo astronauts participated in a visionary plan in the early days of the space age: bring samples of the lunar surface material, known as regolith, back to Earth where they could be studied with cutting-edge equipment and saved for future research not yet imagined. Three of those samples were successfully used to grow plants fifty years later, at the dawn of the Artemis era and the next astronaut return to the Moon. Researchers have grown the hardy and well-studied Arabidopsis thaliana in the nutrient-poor lunar regolith for the first time.
“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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “This fundamental plant growth research is also an important 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 around the world.”
Scientists at the University of Florida have made a breakthrough discovery that could enable space exploration while also benefiting humanity. “Here we are, 50 years later, finishing experiments that began 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 in Communications Biology on May 12, 2022. “First, we wondered whether plants could grow in regolith. Second, how might that one day help humans stay on the Moon for an extended period of time?”
The answer to the first question is emphatically yes. Plants are capable of growing in lunar regolith. They were not as robust as plants grown in Earth soil, or even those grown in a lunar simulant made of volcanic ash, but they did grow. The team hopes to answer the second question by studying how the plants responded in the lunar samples, paving the way for future astronauts to grow more nutrient-rich plants on the Moon and thrive in deep space.
To go boldly, we must first grow boldly
“We need to take advantage of what’s on the Moon to explore further and learn about the solar system we live in,” said Jacob Bleacher, the Chief Exploration Scientist supporting NASA’s Artemis program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. According to Bleacher, this is also why NASA is sending robotic missions to the Moon’s South Pole, where it is believed there may be water that future astronauts can use. “In addition, growing plants is something we’ll study when we go.” So, these ground studies pave the way for the next humans on the Moon to expand on that research.”
Arabidopsis thaliana is a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts native to Eurasia and Africa. It is also important to scientists because, due to its small size and ease of growth, it is one of the most studied plants on the planet, serving as a model organism for research into all aspects of plant biology. As a result, scientists already know what its genes look like, how it behaves under various conditions, and even how it grows in space.