How well do plants grow in the dust of the moon? – First test of lunar regolyte samples from Apollo missions

Various results: For the first time, terrestrial plants have grown on real lunar material – lunar dust samples from Apollo missions. Plants actually evolved from seeds on regolite enriched with a solution of nutrients. However, the plants were small, with discolored leaf color, and their gene activity also showed severe stress reactions. Therefore, growing plants in the lunar subsoil is generally possible, but difficult.

There will be astronauts in the near future back to the moon and there maybe even forever Oral stations upright. However, a prerequisite for such colonization of the Earth’s satellite is sufficient resources: water, oxygen and energy must be available locally. The same goes for food supply, especially with plants.

In the greenhouse
It should be possible to grow vegetables in special greenhouses on the Moon. © NASA

Plants for future lunar colonies

Scientists have long been studying how vegetables and others. can be grown in lunar and Martian conditions hydroponic greenhouses among others, in Antarctica, but also with Regolitas-Analoga. They consist of volcanic sand from Hawaii with sharp-grained grains and a mineral texture similar to that of the lunar subsoil. In fact, tomatoes, lettuce, and others grew relatively well on such analogues, but is that also true for real lunar regolit?

Anna-Lisa Paul of the University of Florida at Gainesville and her colleagues have now tried it out: they were the first research team to have the opportunity to do so. real lunar matter from the Apollo mission pool. The lunar samples brought to Earth by NASA astronauts about 50 years ago are still extremely valuable for planetary research, making them available for only a few selected tests.

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The first test with Apollo lunar dust

But after eleven years of waiting, Paul and her team were finally lucky: for the planting experiments, they received twelve grams of lunar dust. The samples were taken from three different lunar missions: Apollo 11 and 12 regoliths were exposed to strong radiation from the lunar surface for some time and were therefore chemically and physically “matured”, the team explains. Apollo 17 samples, on the other hand, contained “immature” lunar dust from sampling locations shielded from space.

The researchers had to use a valuable material sparingly for their experiments: they used small wells in a plastic case, commonly used for cell culture research as “flower pots.” They added one gram of regolite to each of these wells, moistened it with a nutrient solution and added linseed (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds, a tested and genetically well-tested test plant. The JSC-1A regolitite analog developed by NASA served as a control.

lunar plants
After 16 days, the plants in the true lunar material (right) are significantly more stiff than the plants in their analog regolite. © Tyler Jones, UF / IFAS

Germination works, grows only to a limited extent

It turned out that all the seeds germinated between 48 and 60 hours after planting, and the lunar seedlings developed normal stems and cotyledons. “We were surprised, we didn’t expect that,” says Paul. “It shows us that the lunar soils do not interrupt the germination signals and hormones of the plants.”

However, after a few days, the first differences became apparent: “Compared to the JSC-1A analogue, lunar plants have a longer leaf spread, smaller leaf rosettes, and some have been very stiff and very pigmented, which is typical. plant plant stress index, ”the researchers report. Instead of the usual green, the plants growing on the lunar regolyte were colored in pink and brown shades.

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The test plants in the Apolo 11 samples suffered the most, but the growth was slightly better in the less tolerated lunar material from the Apollo 17 samples, the team said.

Vivid genetic stress response

To learn more about the causes of impaired growth, Paul and her colleagues analyzed the gene activity of the test plants. Here, too, there were obvious differences with the regolite analogue: hundreds of genes characterized by high stress loads were exposed to plants growing on lunar material. “71 percent of these genes are associated with salts, metals, and highly reactive …

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