May 16, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Growing Plants on the Moon May Require Little Green Men-Thumbs

Futurists and science fiction writers disagree more often than they agree (if they didn’t, why would anyone read science fiction?), but one area when they find more to concur about is growing food for human colonies on other planets. That job requires some easy tasks – bringing seeds, building greenhouses – and some difficult ones, like finding water and suitable soil. For the first time since they were brought from the moon over 50 years ago during the Apollo mission, scientists were able to use samples of lunar soil to grow Earth plants. The results will both please and displease futurists and science fiction writers.

“We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”

Could the Moon ever look like this?

Space farming is one of the most essential and least glamorous tasks of space travel and colonization, which is why it gets much more attention from researchers than sci-fi writers. Those researchers include Rob Ferl, distinguished professor of horticultural sciences in the University of Florida (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), and Anna-Lisa Paul, research professor of horticultural sciences in UF/IFAS – co-authors of a new paper published in Communications Biology on the challenges of growing viable plants in the dust and broken rock that is lunar regolith.

“The complication: The scientists only had 12 grams — just a few teaspoons — of lunar soil with which to do this experiment.”

In a University of Florida press release, Ferl and Paul explain that they have been applying to NASA for 11 years for samples of lunar soil, and the 12 grams – 0.4 ounces or 2.7 teaspoons – had to be returned when they were finished. The best plant to meet this challenge is Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant native to Eurasia and Africa that is a relative of mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts and is one of the most researched  plants in the world … so any complications caused by growing in lunar regolith would be instantly obvious. Were there any?

“After two days, they started to sprout! Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were!”

In the NASA press release, Paul reveals that the tiny one-gram vials of soil immediately yielded plants from just seeds, regolith, water and nutrients growing in a clean, sealed terrarium. Like farmers in Kansas rejoicing over the first sprouts of spring, the researchers celebrated for six days. Then things changed.

“After day six, however, 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. The plants grew more slowly and had stunted roots; additionally, some had stunted leaves and sported reddish pigmentation.”

You know things are bad when plants do better in volcanic ash. The scientists kept the plants growing for 20 days until they were ready to flower and then ‘harvested’ them. While not enough to eat, the there was plenty available to sequence their RNA, which helped decode the steps of their growth and determine when and why the stress occurred that caused the stunted growth. The testing showed that obvious dark spots and circles on what should have been bright green leaves and other hidden signs of stress occurred by day 16 of the growing time. While examining each plant grown in the lunar soils, one unusual characteristic jumped out like a sore green thumb.

“The JSC-1A plants maintained a consistently higher rate of growth than plants grown on any of the lunar regolith samples, and the plants grown on Apollo 11 regolith fared worse than plants grown on regolith from Apollo 12 and 17.”

The soil brought back by the Apollo 11 moon diggers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had more problems growing plants with the JSC-1A nutrients that did the soil from the Apollo 12 (Pete Conrad and Alan Bean) and Apollo 17 (Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt) missions. In their study, Paul and Ferl determined that the Apollo 11 site contained ‘mature’ soil which had been exposed to more cosmic wind than the others.

Buzz wants to go back and get some better soil

While the results of the lunar soil experiment – plants grew, but not very well, and it depended on where the dirt came from – were good news and bad news, Sharmila Bhattacharya, program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division, provided an interesting perspective in the NASA press release on why growing plants on the Moon and beyond is so important.

“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration. Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”

If only the Moon had some little green men with little green thumbs to help us.

Paul Seaburn
Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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