July 2, 2022

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Study suggests you may be able to grow plants on the Moon

5 min read

What do you need to make your garden grow? As well as plenty of sunshine alternating with gentle showers of rain – and busy bees and butterflies to pollinate the plants – you need good, rich soil to provide essential minerals. But imagine you had no rich soil, or showers of rain, or bees and butterflies. And the sunshine was either too harsh and direct or absent – causing freezing temperatures.

Could plants grow in such an environment – and, if so, which ones? This is the question that colonists on the Moon (and Mars) would have to tackle if (or when) human exploration of our planetary neighbors goes ahead. Now a new study, published in Communications Biology, has started to provide answers.

The researchers behind the study cultivated the fast-growing plant Arabidopsis thaliana in samples of lunar regolith (soil) brought back from three different places on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts.

This is not the first time that attempts have been made to grow plants in lunar regolith though, but it is the first to demonstrate why they don’t thrive.

The lunar regolith is very different from terrestrial soils. For a start, it doesn’t contain organic matter (worms, bacteria, decaying plant matter) that is characteristic of soil on Earth. Neither does it have an inherent water content.

But it is composed of the same minerals as terrestrial soils, so assuming that the lack of water, sunlight, and air is ameliorated by cultivating plants inside a lunar habitat, then the regolith could have the potential to grow plants.

The research showed that this is indeed the case. Seeds of A. thaliana germinated at the same rate in Apollo material as they did in the terrestrial soil. But while the plants in the terrestrial soil went on to develop rootstocks and put out leaves, the Apollo seedlings were stunted and had poor root growth.

The main thrust of the research was to examine plants at the genetic level. This allowed the scientists to recognize which specific environmental factors evoked the strongest genetic responses to stress. They found that most of the stress reaction in all the Apollo seedlings came from salts, metal, and oxygen that is highly reactive (the last two of which are not common in terrestrial soil) in the lunar samples.