Plants have been grown in soil from the moon for the first time in a major milestone for space exploration. 

The breakthrough study is the first step towards one day growing plants for food and oxygen during space missions or on the moon.

The arabidopsis plant – known as thale cress – can successfully sprout and grow in soil that was collected from the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions in the new study from the University of Florida.

The scientists also investigated how plants respond biologically to the moon’s soil.

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This is also known as lunar regolith, which is radically different from soil found on Earth.

The research comes as the Artemis Program plans to return humans to the moon.

Rob Ferl, one of the study’s authors and a professor of horticultural sciences in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), said: “Showing that plants will grow in lunar soil is actually a huge step in that direction of being able to establish ourselves in lunar colonies.”

He added that it was also important to show that lunar soils were not harmful to terrestrial life, and also that terrestrial life could establish itself.

The study's findings also raise the question of what this means for growing food for human consumption on the moon.

Anna-Lisa Paul, one of the study’s authors and a research professor of horticultural sciences in UF/IFAS, explained: “So the plants that were responding the most strongly to what we would call oxidative stress responses, those are the ones especially in the Apollo 11 samples, they are the ones that turned purple.

“And that’s the same thing that’s in blueberries and cranberries, and all of those, those dark red and purple fruits that are healthy for humans because of their anti-oxidative properties.

The Herald: Lunar soil being weighed. Credit: University of Florida/ PALunar soil being weighed. Credit: University of Florida/ PA

“We definitely don’t know the nutritive value of these plants, but it is likely not to pose any threat to humans – it’s hard to say, but it’s more likely that the chemicals that plants produce in response to stresses are ones that also help human stresses as well.

“So it’s likely to be a more benign or helpful response than the other way around.”

While arabidopsis is edible it is not tasty, Dr Paul added.

It belongs to the same family as mustard, cauliflower and broccoli, so many of the things learned could translate into the same kind of metabolic strategies and processes “that our good friend broccoli uses”, Dr Paul continued.

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How did scientists grow plants on the moon?

The scientists planted seeds in lunar soil, added water, nutrients and light, and analysed their growth and results.

They only had 12 grams – just under three teaspoons – of soil from the moon to work with due to the nature of the samples.

On loan from Nasa, they had applied three times over the course of 11 years for a chance to work with the soil until 18 months ago when they were given the samples.

The samples had to be kept in a pristine condition before the study so that other analyses could be carried out since releasing them for plant growth experiments would have seen them become unsuitable for other research.

We need to have a better understanding of how to grow plants in space for the upcoming Artemis mission meaning the experiment was increasingly relevant.

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With thimble-sized wells in plastic plates normally used to culture cells, the scientists filled each one with roughly one gram of lunar soil.

The samples were moistened with a nutrient solution and then a few seeds were added from the arabidopsis plant.

The plant is well documented in scientific research and its genetic code has been mapped fully.

Seeds were also planted in soil from Earth that mimics real lunar soil in order to compare.

The researchers also conducted comparisons with simulated Martian soils and terrestrial soils from extreme environments.

It was surprising that all of the seeds planted in the lunar soils sprouted, the researchers commented.

However, just because the plants all grew does not mean they did so as normal.

Some of those grown in the lunar soils were smaller, grew slower, had different colouring and even varied in size compared to their counterparts.

These are all physical signs that the plants were working to cope with the chemical and structural make-up of the moon’s soil.

A soil, which has lots of tiny glass fragments containing gases and even metallic irons.

The Herald: Harvesting a plant growing in lunar soil. Credit: University of Florida/PAHarvesting a plant growing in lunar soil. Credit: University of Florida/PA

According to the scientists, how plants respond to lunar soil may be linked to where the soil was collected.

For instance, the researchers found that the plants with the most signs of stress were those grown in what lunar geologists call mature lunar soil.

Dr Ferl said: “It’s really good news that plants can grow in the lunar soils.

“This presents to lunar colonists, to lunar scientists, a bunch more options than if they simply failed to grow there.

“But the bottom line is that until it was actually done, nobody knew whether plants, especially plant roots, would be able to interact with the very sharp antagonistic soils the lunar regolith presents.”

Stephen Elardo, an assistant professor of geology at UF, also collaborated on the study published in the Communications Biology journal.