For the first time in history, researchers have managed to grow the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant native to Eurasia and Africa, in lunar soil from the moon.
The researchers first collected lunar soil, otherwise known as regolith , over fifty years ago. Using a gram of this soil for each plant, the researchers added water and seeds to each gram sample. They then put the trays into terrarium boxes in a clean room and added a nutrient solution on a daily basis.
Excitingly, after just two days, the plants began to sprout. However, the researchers started to notice some interesting changes after the sixth day. They noted that the plants were growing differently depending on what type of sample they were in, with those planted in the ‘lunar soil’ growing more slowly, as well as having stunted roots. Some of the leaves also had a reddish pigmentation.
“Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.” said Anna-Lisa Paul, who is also a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida.
After making this interesting observation, the team harvested the plants and ground them up in order to study their RNA, just before the plants started to flower. The analysis of the plants RNA showed that the plants were under stress due to the harsh environment, however despite this they had still managed to grow.
This finding is particularly encouraging as it could be used to explore how other plants could survive in extreme conditions here on earth.
“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.” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division.
Other studies by NASA have shown the potential for other plants and food to be grown in space, opening up an exciting new chapter for the development of edible food in space.