Plants grow in lunar soil for first time
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University of Florida scientists managed to germinate thale cress in soil samples collected by Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions. “When humans move as civilizations, we always take our agriculture with us,” said study co-author Robert Ferl, as reported on the Natural History Museum website. “This will be incredibly important on the moon. The ability to take plants successfully is how we’ll grow our own food, purify our air and clean our water; things that will allow us to stay there for a while. We can grow plants hydroponically, but the idea of bringing lunar soil into a lunar greenhouse is the stuff of lunar exploration dreams.”
These new little lunar plants are not as robust as those grown in terrestrial soil. In fact, the study noted, “The lunar regolith plants were slow to develop and many showed severe stress morphologies. Moreover, all plants grown in lunar soils differentially expressed genes indicating ionic stresses, similar to plant reactions to salt, metal and reactive oxygen species.” Regolith is a loose blanket of broken rocks and dust covering bedrock, and is present on places like Earth, Mars and the moon. Leaves of the lunar plants also showed red and black discoloration associated with metabolic stress and poor health. The older the soil, the less viable the plants—thanks to longer exposure to solar winds and cosmic radiation.
Despite the subpar growth, scientists are greatly encouraged, as growing space plants has long been a priority. The Soviets have had space plant bragging rights since 1966, when they launched some seeds into orbit which later grew back on Earth. But that and subsequent space plants weren’t grown from lunar soil.
Why are space plants so important? It’s because plants could help fix some of outer space’s harshest problems for humans, such as the lack of food and oxygen. If we could grow veggies in space, not only could we eat them, but the plants could convert exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Of course, many environmentalists are disturbed by the idea of humans leaving Earth like rats deserting a sinking ship, only to sow our mischief elsewhere.