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UF researchers grow plants using moon soil, making history. ‘Holy cow!’

Their findings could advance space exploration by helping to sustain longer human stays.
Rob Ferl, left, and Anna-Lisa Paul look at plates containing plants grown in samples of soil collected from the moon.
Rob Ferl, left, and Anna-Lisa Paul look at plates containing plants grown in samples of soil collected from the moon. [ TYLER JONES | University of Florida ]
Published May 12|Updated May 12

In a groundbreaking study published Thursday, researchers at the University of Florida have found that plants can grow in moon soil.

The study is the result of more than a decade of experiments, which led to NASA loaning UF lunar regolith, or the moon soil, collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions. The researchers received four 1-gram amounts — about a teaspoon — from each mission after their 2019 proposal was approved, but previously spent years perfecting how to successfully grow plants in a tiny amount of soil.

Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl, whose past experiments have traveled aboard Richard Branson’s spaceship, worked with UF geology professor Stephen Elardo in planting Arabidopsis plants in the lunar regolith last year.

The small flowering plants, belonging to the mustard family, are commonly used in labs, favored because they grow and respond to their environment in the same way as many crop plants, according to the National Science Foundation. They also have a well-mapped gene pattern, a UF news release said.

By the second day of the experiment, everything was germinating, Paul said in an interview.

“It was awe-inspiring,” she said.

Ferl said he remembered thinking “holy cow!” when he witnessed what had never been seen before.

“Was it surprising?” he said. “I don’t know. Does it affect the brain and heart and spirit? Definitely.”

Related: Astronomers capture 1st image of Milky Way’s huge black hole

The researchers also grew the same plants in soil from extreme environments, as well as soils designed to mimic lunar soil and soil from Mars.

Paul said the plants grown in actual lunar soil were smaller, and the study found that the plants appeared to struggle most with soil collected during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and least in the samples taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. Further studies would need to be done to determine if the maturity of the soil would impact that success of the plants.

On May 14, 2021, the 16th day of an experiment by University of Florida researchers, clear differences could be seen between two sets of plants. On the left were plants grown in soil simulating soil found on the moon. On the right were plants grown in actual lunar soil. The actual lunar soil was collected during three Apollo spacecraft missions in 1969 and 1972.
On May 14, 2021, the 16th day of an experiment by University of Florida researchers, clear differences could be seen between two sets of plants. On the left were plants grown in soil simulating soil found on the moon. On the right were plants grown in actual lunar soil. The actual lunar soil was collected during three Apollo spacecraft missions in 1969 and 1972. [ TYLER JONES | University of Florida ]

What the study did show, Paul said, was that plants were capable of reaching into their “metabolic toolboxes” to activate different ways to respond to stressors.

“They can grow, but they don’t like it,” she said. “They turn on different genes to physically adapt to their environments.”

Paul and Ferl are professors of horticultural sciences in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Their findings, reached in concert with the geology professor Elardo, were published in the journal Communications Biology.

The plants’ ability to grow in moon soil could advance space exploration by helping to sustain longer human stays. While previous experiments have found that plants could grow in simulated moon soils, the study is the first of its kind using the actual material.

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“The commitment by NASA is a really powerful statement not only about the interest, but the need to have us there as colonists and not just visitors,” Ferl said.

Paul said transporting plants for sustaining life has a long history, from the time of the ancient Polynesians who introduced crops to Hawaii.

“Humans are explorers,” she said. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”

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