For the experiment, the researchers used 12 grams of lunar soil collected from various spots on the Moon during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions. They placed about a gram of soil in tiny pots and added water followed by the seeds. They also provided the plants with a nutrient solution every day.
The seeds were of Arabidopsis thaliana — a plant related to mustard greens. The scientists chose this plant because it’s easier to grow and has been studied in detail. Moreover, its genetic code and responses to hostile environments are well known.
As a control group, the seeds were also planted in a lunar simulant, designed to closely mimic real lunar soil. Amazingly, after just two days, everything sprouted, including the lunar samples.
Soon, however, they started noticing some differences. While all the seeds sprouted, the ones that grew in lunar soil did not grow as "robust" as those in the control, say the study authors. Also, some of the plants grown in the lunar soil samples had "stunted" roots and leaves along with some "reddish pigmentation," the release said.
At the end of the 20th day, the scientists harvested all the plants and prepared to study their RNA. Their analysis showed that the lunar plants had reacted similarly to those grown in harsh environments, such as when soil carries excess salt or heavy metals.
“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division in a statement.
This experiment is indeed a monumental advancement in space biology. The research team says now that we have lunar soil that has been in contact with biology, they need to understand how this environment could be made more hospitable. They also need to know if materials from different areas of the Moon are more favorable to growing plants than others.
NASA is already making preparations to return to the Moon soon. Their long-term goal is to establish a lasting human presence on its surface, and experiments like these will help them understand the Moon better.
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