Take a few teaspoons of lunar soil, a little water, arabiidopsi thaliana seeds (chosen for its resistance in hostile environments and its well-known genetic code), mix, add a nutrient solution daily and… Observe. This is the experience carried out by a team of herbal exobiologist researchers from the University of Florida, whose results have just been published in the journal Communications Biology. Even if the few grams of lunar regolith still date back to the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions, that is to say that they are more than fifty years old (but have been perfectly preserved), what was their surprise to see that the plants germinated after… two days!
The germination process worked
Better, scientists who had the reflex to plant seeds in other control samples either with soil from our own planet, or with soil imitating Martian soil, were able to observe that growth was done in the same way ” until the sixth day” according to Anna-Lisa Paule, the lead author of the American study. But thereafter, the lunar plants grew more slowly than the others with stunted roots. “What should be remembered from this original experiment is that the germination process until the appearance of the first leaves worked, explains Caroline Freissinet, CNRS researcher in planetary sciences and astrochemistry at the Atmospheres, Milieux Laboratory, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) of the Observatory of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Then, there is a slowdown but the evolution remains positive.”
After twenty days, the team from the University of Florida carried out a small harvest in order to study the DNA of the lunar plants. The researchers found that these had grown in the same way as in a hostile environment, that is to say with a soil too rich in minerals or heavy metals. Before explaining: They “grow more slowly and show more signs of stress when grown in lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo missions than in volcanic ash from Earth.”. The DNA study therefore showed genes responding to ionic (salt) and oxidative (metals) stress. “In a way, this work points to what is in the lunar soil restricting the growth of plants, continues Caroline Freissinet. No extension, we can define, for example, what type of metals to remove from this soil to ensure that plants grow better.”
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Developing food sources for future astronauts
There is still a long way to go before we hope to see a vegetable garden on the surface of the Moon and even more so on the Red Planet, like Matt Damon in the film “Alone on Mars” who survives by cultivating a field of potato, especially by fertilizing the barren Martian soil with its own excrement. “This is just a basic science experiment with its limitations: the seeds were planted in this earth which was on glass wool, soaked in nutrients, watered with earth water and illuminated with terrestrial light and oxygen.It is not the soil that makes the seed germinate.
We are therefore closer to an above-ground culture than to a classic plantation”, adds Caroline Freissinet for whom the essential thing remains that the lunar regolith “does not inhibit the cultivation of plants.” Which means that this study opens new prospects for growing plants directly on the moon, which would save astronauts from loading expensive food cargoes on board their ships and gives hope for a solution for longer missions, as summarized by Bill Nelson, the chief from the American space agency (Nasa) on reading the article by researchers from the University of Florida: “We will need to use the resources on the Moon and on Mars to develop food sources for the future astronauts living in deep space”.
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From now on, scientists will try to understand by what means the lunar environment and climate could be made more hospitable in order to grow vegetation directly on the moon. “Once Americans return to the Moon at the end of the decade, the issue of resource use – like extracting water from rocks or using the environment to grow plants – will be a major focus of the Artemis program”, concludes Caroline Freissinet. First to learn to live on the surface of our natural satellite. Then to imagine doing the same on Mars.