Can plants grow in lunar soil? An instructive study recently published in the journal Communications Biology describes an experiment in which lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo missions were used to grow Tal’s clover (Latin: Arabidopsis thaliana).
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Researchers at the University of Florida used 12 lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions between 1969 and 1972. In addition to lunar samples, they also used 16 volcanic ash samples collected on Earth, and then they compared plant growth in both types of samples. To avoid any inconsistencies, the researchers used volcanic ash with the same mineral composition and particle size as the lunar soil.
When the researchers were asked why they chose Thal’s clover, Dr. Robert Ferl, professor emeritus at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the study, explained that the plant was chosen for a variety of reasons: “First of all, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana is well studied on Earth. There are thousands of laboratories around the world that work or have worked with this plant, so we know a lot about this crop – from every nucleotide in its genome to which genes are expressed in its salt solution. The second reason is that this plant is small and can grow in a limited amount of soil. We grew one plant in almost one gram of sample, (one gram of lunar soil is equal to the volume of one teaspoon).”
Despite the similar mineral composition, samples of lunar soil and volcanic ash contributed to plant growth in different ways. Many plants on lunar soil grew with the same shape and color, but reddish-black pigments were found in others. These shades indicate the transferred stress. Moreover, plants grown in the lunar soil grew slowly and lagged behind in development.
However, the most important result of this experiment is still that scientists still managed to grow plants in the lunar regolith.