In the early period of the space age, Apollo astronauts participated in a visionary plan, i.e., to bring samples of regolith, a lunar surface material, back to Earth to be studied with premium equipment and also saved for research in the future.
Rewinding 50 years in the future from that moment: the dawn of the Artemis era and the next astronaut going back to the Moon and three such samples were used for plant growth.
And, now, for the first time in history, researchers have succeeded in growing a hardy and well-studied thale cress or mouse-ear cress in regolith which is known to be poor in nutrients.
NASA-Funded Study Reaches Groundbreaking Point in Plant Research
According to NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson, this is pivotal research considering the continuous human exploration goals of NASA because the resources on the Moon and Mars will have to be used to make food for the astronauts who will live and work in deep space in the future.
This pivotal research on plant growth is an example of NASA’s efforts to find innovative agricultural methods to better the understanding of plants overcoming challenging conditions in areas with scarce food on Earth.
The breakthrough finding may offer benefits to humanity and optimize space exploration.
The University of Florida scientists, 50 years later, finished the experiments which began in the Apollo labs back in the days, according to Robert Ferl, a professor at the Horticultural Sciences department at the university and an author of a paper published in the journal Communications Biology.
The Importance of Plants Growing in Regolith
The first question was if plants are able to grow in regolith and the second was how can this, one day, assist humans in prolonged stay on the Moon.
Plants can grow in regolith although they weren’t as robust as the ones grown in soil from the Earth or as the ones from the control group that grew in a lunar simulant from volcanic ash.
The team is hopeful that learning how the plants respond to the lunar samples will help them finally answer the second question and create a path for astronauts in the future to grow more nutritious plants on the Moon.
The Importance of Taking Advantage of What the Moon Offers
According to the Chief Exploration Scientist who supports the Artemis program by NASA, Jacob Bleacher, in order to continue the exploration and learn more about our solar system, scientists need to benefit from the stuff on the Moon so that they don’t have to take all of it with them.
In fact, this is why NASA sends robotic missions to the south pole of the Moon where they believe there may be water that can be of great use for astronauts in the future, as well as for the growth of plants.
What Kind of Plant Did the Scientists Grow in this Moon Surface?
The plant, thale cress, originates from Africa and Eurasia, and it’s a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous veggies.
It’s also essential for scientists because it’s easy to grow and has a small size.
This is actually one of the most studied plants worldwide and it’s often used as a model organism in different areas of plant biology.
To grow it, the team used samples from the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions and a gram of regolith for each plant. They added water and seeds and then placed the trays into terrariums and added nutrients daily.
The sprouting happened two days later and the team was amazed: every plant, whether in the control or in the lunar sample, looked the same around the sixth day.
However, after the sixth day, it was evident that the ones in the lunar sample weren’t as robust as those in the volcanic ash from the control group.
The plants had a slower growth rate and the roots were stunted. Some also had reddish pigmentation.
Before the plants began flowering, after some 20 days, the team gathered the plants and studied their RNA.
The sequencing showed that the plants were under stress and reacted in the manner that researchers have seen this species respond to growth in severe environments like soil with high levels of salt or heavy metals.
The plants grown in Apollo 11 were less robust than that of the other two. Despite this data, one thing’s for sure: the plants grew.