As NASA gets serious about building bases on the Moon and eventually sending humans to Mars and beyond, it becomes increasingly important to understand how offworld agriculture might work. Now, University of Florida biologists have grown plants in lunar soil for the first time ever. When they planted the seeds, they had no idea if they'd sprout or not. From University of Florida News:
The scientists only had 12 grams — just a few teaspoons — of lunar soil with which to do this experiment. On loan from NASA, this soil was collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions to the moon. [Horticultural scientists Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl] applied three times over the course of 11 years for a chance to work with the lunar regolith.
The small amount of soil, not to mention its incalculable historical and scientific significance, meant that Paul and Ferl had to design a small scale, carefully choreographed experiment. To grow their tiny lunar garden, the researchers used thimble-sized wells in plastic plates normally used to culture cells. Each well functioned as a pot. Once they filled each "pot" with approximately a gram of lunar soil, the scientists moistened the soil with a nutrient solution and added a few seeds from the Arabidopsis plant.
Arabidopsis is widely used in the plant sciences because its genetic code has been fully mapped. Growing Arabidopsis in the lunar soil allowed the researchers more insight into how the soil affected the plants, down to the level of gene expression.
"At the genetic level, the plants were pulling out the tools typically used to cope with stressors, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, so we can infer that the plants perceive the lunar soil environment as stressful," Paul said. "Ultimately, we would like to use the gene expression data to help address how we can ameliorate the stress responses to the level where plants — particularly crops — are able to grow in lunar soil with very little impact to their health."
"Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration" (Communications Biology)