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TRENDING SCIENCE: Can we grow food on the moon?

In a first, scientists grow plants in soil samples from the moon.

Fundamental Research

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several NASA Apollo missions brought back about 370 kg of rocks, soil and other samples from the moon’s surface. About half a century later, a team of scientists from the University of Florida (UF) have used some of the soil samples to grow plants in small amounts. In fact, this particular soil belongs to one of the missions carried out by legendary moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Would anything spring to life in the unforgiving soil? The answer left the scientists speechless. “Holy cow. Plants actually grow in lunar stuff. Are you kidding me?” co-corresponding author Robert Ferl of the UF Horticultural Sciences Department told ‘The Guardian’. The results were published in the journal ‘Communications Biology’.

Giant leap for plants from Earth

For the first time ever, plants sprung and grew right here on Earth in soil from a foreign body. Even though all the seeds sprouted, it wasn’t all roses for the pioneering experiment. It’s stressful for plants to grow in this way. The plants were slow to develop and looked stressed. The soil, after all, had been exposed to cosmic radiation and solar wind. “Plants helped establish that the soil samples brought back from the moon did not harbor pathogens or other unknown components that would harm terrestrial life, but those plants were only dusted with the lunar regolith [soil samples] and were never actually grown in it,” co-corresponding author Anna-Lisa Paul of the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and Horticultural Sciences Department told ‘CNN’.

Next stop? The moon, of course

With NASA planning to send astronauts back on the moon in a few years, the time couldn’t have been better for Professors Ferl and Paul to see if seeds could grow in such soil. Hothouses in space, perhaps? “For future, longer space missions, we may use the Moon as a hub or launching pad,” explained Prof. Ferl. “So, what 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?” “When humans move as civilizations to stay somewhere, we always take our agriculture with us,” Prof. Ferl added. “The idea of bringing lunar soil into a lunar greenhouse is the stuff of exploration dreams.” Now the scientists want to know if growing plants on the moon could actually change the soil. “The Moon is a very, very dry place,” commented co-author Stephen Elardo, assistant professor of geology at the UF Department of Geological Sciences. “How will minerals in the lunar soil respond to having a plant grown in them, with the added water and nutrients? Will adding water make the mineralogy more hospitable to plants?” “Seeing plants grow is an achievement in that it says that we can go to the moon and grow our food, clean our air and recycle our water using plants the way we use them here on Earth,” Prof. Ferl told ‘Reuters’. “It is also a revelation in that it says that terrestrial life is not limited to Earth.” One more reason to dream when we gaze at the night sky.

Keywords

moon, food, soil, plant, seed, greenhouse