Plants have been grown on lunar soil, demonstrating the feasibility of a key step toward future settlement. However, anybody expecting the Moon to one day serve as the Earth’s food bowl should reconsider; lunar regolith ranks below hard terrestrial rocks in terms of fertility. Extended Moon expeditions will be in severe need of fresh food and will not want to carry Earth soil with them to grow it in, thus proving the feasibility seems like a no-brainer. The Apollo missions, on the other hand, could only send back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of rocks, and NASA has distributed them selectively to scientists, not knowing how long the supply would endure.
Restrictions are being eased in anticipation of the Artemis missions expanding their supply. A report published in the journal Communications Biology has claimed the first successful flower sprouting in material returned from the Moon, after the opening of one of the two samples vacuum-sealed since collection (although the water and air were terrestrial). Professor Anna-Lisa Paul of the University of Florida, Gainsville, noted that plants had previously encountered lunar dirt. “Plants helped establish that the soil samples returned from the moon did not include viruses or other unknown components that might harm terrestrial life,” Paul said in a statement. “However, those plants were simply dusted with the lunar regolith and were never truly grown in it.”
Paul and Professor Robert Ferl were given just 12 grams (0.42 ounces) of lunar material to work with after three applications spanning 11 years. The substance was regolith, a loose, mixed surface material with a particle size of less than 1 millimeter gathered by the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions to make growth simpler, but the little quantity makes the operation extremely difficult. The researchers employed four plates, each with a sample from each spot in separate wells, as well as water and a solution containing nutrients that the Moon lacks. Each received a few seeds of the model organism Arabidopsis.
When scientists couldn’t get to the actual thing, they put matching seedlings in soils from harsh Earth regions and materials manufactured to seem like lunar and Martian dirt. Almost all of the seeds germinated. “We were astounded. “We didn’t expect that,” Paul explained. “This indicated that the lunar soils did not interfere with plant germination hormones and signals.” Of course, the seeds’ potential development was limited due to the lack of soil, but they had overcome the most difficult obstacle.
In contrast, despite identical quantities of material, the lunar soil plants developed more slowly and to lower sizes than the controls. Damage manifested itself in a variety of ways. “We may infer that the plants view the lunar soil environment as stressful since they were taking out the instruments generally employed to cope with stresses, like as salt and metals or oxidative stress,” Paul added.
Although we may anticipate the Moon to be a cruel mistress to plants, as Heinlein put it, it’s nevertheless disturbing that it was much worse than unfriendly Earth soils. Fortunately, not all of the soils were similarly terrible. Plants grew better in the Apollo 17 samples than in the Apollo 12 samples, which outperformed those taken near Armstrong’s iconic footprint. The scientists ascribe the difference to how exposed the samples were to the solar wind, implying that soils from deeper under the surface may be more beneficial to crops. They also believe that cultivating generations of crops in the same soil would change it in a positive way — after all, it is what gives new volcanic islands life.