University of Florida researchers successfully grow plants in lunar soil

Researchers at the University of Florida have successfully grown plants in soil from the moon. This study is the first of its kind using lunar soil.

The simple experiment could pave the way for growing crops on the moon and help humankind thrive in deep space with food and oxygen.

"First time any kind of plant, any kind of biology has grown in extraterrestrial materials like this.  So, is a pretty stunning kind of experiment to be able to do," said Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, UF Horticultural Sciences Research Professor.

Paul is part of the team at UF that made the breakthrough discovery. The trio published their findings Thursday in the Communications Biology Journal.

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The Apollo Astronauts brought lunar surface material known as regolith back to earth 50-years ago. The NASA-funded study investigated how plants respond biologically to this moon soil.

"We had samples from Apollo 11, Apollo 12 and Apollo 17, and they gave us four grams from each one of those sites," Paul said. "We designed a very small growth habitat to enable us to test how plants could grow."

Arabidopsis seeds were planted in the tiny samples of moon soil. Light, water and nutrients were added, and within a few days, little seedlings were pushing up.

Paul said lunar regolith is radically different from the soil here on earth.

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"It has been sitting on the surface of the moon for billions of years, and during that time it has been bombarded with micrometeorites just imparted by the solar wind," she said. "It's full of extraordinarily sharp, sharp edges, bits of glass that are molecularly sharp."

According to the research, the plants grown in the regolith were smaller and took longer to mature than the control group. Still, life found a way to adapt, which is a critical step forward to one day supporting humans in space.

"If we're going to leave earth's orbit in any kind of meaningful way, we'll have to take plants with us," said Paul. "It's what allows us to be explorers, so we can go past the confines of a backpack."

Paul and her main research partner tried for about a decade to be able to work with the lunar regolith. The pair is internationally recognized experts in the study of plants in space, and have sent other experiments up on space shuttles, and to the International Space Station.