Scientists grow plants in moon soil for the first time in long-awaited NASA study

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Scientists grew the plants in moon soil in a lab  (via REUTERS)
Scientists grew the plants in moon soil in a lab (via REUTERS)

Scientists have grown plants in soil from the moon for the first time.

Researchers had no idea if anything would grow in the dirt, but have reported positive results from an experiment to grow plants in soil collected by Nasa’s Apollo astronauts.

“Holy cow. Plants actually grow in lunar stuff. Are you kidding me?” said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Mr Ferl and colleagues planted thale cress in moon soil returned by Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, among others - and all of the seeds sprouted.

However, the downside was that after the first week, properties of the lunar soil stressed the plants so much that they grew more slowly than seedlings planted in fake moon dirt from Earth.

Most of the moon plants ended up stunted, according to results published on Thursday in Communications Biology.


Scientists said the longer the soil was exposed to radiation and solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seem to do.

The Apollo 11 samples, which were exposed for a few billion years longer to the elements because of the older surface of the moon’s area where humans have visited, were the least conducive for growth, researchers said.

“This is a big step forward to know that you can grow plants,” said Simon Gilroy, a space plant biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who had no role in the study.

“The real next step is to go and do it on the surface of the moon.”

Nasa astronauts brought back 382kg of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface over a three-year period from 1969. Twelve grams was given to University of Florida researchers early last year, allowing the long-awaited planting to take place last May in a lab.

NASA said the timing for such an experiment was finally right, with the space agency looking to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.

The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to tap into the endless supply of available local dirt for indoor planting, scientists said.

“The fact that anything grew means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimise and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s program scientist for space biology,

The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year, planting more thale cress before possibly moving on to other vegetation.

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