They are the first plants to grow in the dirt of the moon

That’s a little stem for a plant, a huge leap forward for plant science.

In a small garden grown in the laboratory, the first seeds sown in the dirt of the moon have sprouted. This small crop planted in samples translated by Apollo missions offers hope that astronauts will someday grow their food on the moon.

But plants packed in lunar dirt were growing slower and slower than others growing on Earth’s volcanic material, the researchers reported on May 12th. Communications Biology. This finding suggests that agriculture would need much more than a green thumb on the moon.

“Oh! It’s very pretty! ” says Richard Barker of the University of Wisconsin-Madison about the astrobotany experiment.

“Since these samples were returned, botanists wanted to know what would happen if the plants grew,” says Barker, who was not involved in the study. “But everyone knows that these precious samples … are priceless, so you can understand why [NASA was] eager to release. ‘

Now, NASA’s plans to send astronauts back to the moon as part of its Artemis program have provided a new impetus for exploring this precious dirt and how lunar resources can contribute to long-term missions (SN: 7/19/15).

The dirt or regularity that covers the moon is basically the worst nightmare for a gardener. This fine powder of fine jewelry is filled with metallic iron, rather than the oxidized type which is pleasing to plants (SN: 20/9/15). It is also filled with small pieces of glass forged by space rocks that throw the moon. What is this no It is full of nitrogen, phosphorus or more to grow plants. So while scientists were quite adept at growing plants from fake moon dust made of earth materials, no one knew whether newborn plants could put their delicate roots into real things.

To find out, a trio of researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville conducted experiments with thale cresala (Arabidopsis thaliana). This well-studied plant belongs to the mustard family and can be grown in a small patch of material. That was the key, because the researchers had only a little bit of the moon to walk around.

The group planted the seeds in small pots, each containing one gram of dirt. Four pots were filled with samples translated by Apollo 11, another four with Apollo 12 samples and the last four with Apollo 17 dirt. Another 16 pots were filled with volcanic earth material used to mimic the moon’s dirt in past experiments. All were grown under LED lights in the lab and watered with a nutrient broth.

The 16-day-old Thale cresal plant in volcanic soil material (left) looked completely different from the lunar soil-fed seedlings (right). The Apollo 11 missions were worse than those planted in pots (right, top) in Apollo 12 samples (right, center) or Apollo 17 samples (right, bottom).Tyler Jones, IFAS / UF

“Nothing compared to what we saw them sprouting in the moonlight,” says molecular plant biologist Anna-Lisa Paul. “It was a moving experience to say that we are seeing the first organisms growing in extraterrestrial materials. And it was amazing. It’s just amazing. “

The plants grew in all the dirt pots on the moon, but none of them grew as well as those grown in earthen materials. “The healthiest ones were smaller,” Paul says. The sickest plants grown on the moon were tiny and had purple pigmentation, the red flag of plant stress. Plants grown in Apollo 11 samples, which had been on the lunar surface for the longest time, were most in doubt.

Paul and colleagues also inspected the genes in their mini Alien Eden. “By looking at what genes are activated and deactivated in response to stress, this shows you how to deal with the stress that plants derive from metabolic tool tools,” he says. All plants grown in the lunar soil produced the genetic tools commonly found in plants struggling with the stress of reactive species of salt, metal, or oxygen (SN: 9/8/21).

Apollo 11 seedlings had the most stressed genetic profile, and provided further evidence that the longer-lasting regolith on the lunar surface — and therefore packed with more impact glass and metallic iron — is more toxic to plants.

Future space explorers can select the site of their lunar habitat accordingly. Maybe the dirt on the moon could also be changed to make it more comfortable for the plants. Or the plants could be genetically engineered to feel more at home in foreign lands. “We can also choose plants that do better,” says Paul. “Perhaps spinach plants, which are very tolerant of salt, would have no problem growing in the moonlight.”

Barker is not intimidated by the challenges posed by this first attempt at lunar gardening. “There are a lot of steps and technologies that need to be developed before humanity can actually participate in lunar agriculture,” he says. “But having this particular set of data is very important to those of us who think it’s possible and important.”

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