Is this the beginning of terraforming other worlds? Plants have emerged from lunar dirt, according to scientists.

Because of the tremendous changes in the Earth’s climate and the depletion of natural resources, the idea of altering the environment of another planet to make it livable for human life has recently gained traction. While terraforming an entire planet would take a long time and would be impossible with current technology, researchers at the University of Florida have discovered a breakthrough that could be the first step in doing just that — making another planet habitable.

Anna-Lisa Paul, Stephen M. Elardo, and Robert Ferl grew plants for the first time in decades in lunar soil obtained during the Apollo missions. The findings were reported in the journal Communications Biology.

NASA has been requesting lunar samples for fifteen years, and the researchers have already succeeded in growing plants in samples that mimic lunar soil. However, NASA has repeatedly declined lunar soil samples because there aren’t enough on Earth.

Nonetheless, the American space agency ultimately granted their request by the end of 2020, after the scientists discovered a method that only required 1 gram of soil sample per plant. The move could potentially be related to NASA’s Artemis mission, which was launched in 2018 and intends to re-land humans on the Moon.

“This research is crucial to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “because we’ll need to employ resources found on the Moon and Mars to produce food sources for future astronauts living and functioning in deep space.” “This fundamental plant growth research is also a crucial illustration of how NASA is working to unleash agricultural advances that could help us understand how plants might withstand challenging conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth,” says the NASA press release.

Between 1969 and 1972, Anna-Lisa Paul and her crew received 12 grams of lunar soil gathered during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions. Since astronauts first brought samples to Earth after the first accomplished Moon landing in 1969, the soil of the Moon, which is made up of rock fragments, mono-mineral particles, and various types of glasses, has been intensively investigated. However, it is unknown whether plants could grow in this regolith, which is very different from Earth’s soil. Until now, that is.

Scientists have researched Arabidopsis thaliana extensively.

The researchers prepared little plastic wells with a gram of lunar soil and planted Arabidopsis thaliana seeds in the regolith of the Moon for the experiment. Every day, they added water and a nutritional solution to the soil. The scientists developed a control group by growing plants in Earth soil, volcanic ash, and a synthetic substance that mimicked lunar soil to see how it compares to other types of soils.

Arabidopsis thaliana was chosen as the study’s test subject because it develops quickly and is one of the most researched plants on the planet. This little flowering plant native to Eurasia and Africa, sometimes known as thale cress, is truly edible and is related to mustard greens and broccoli. However, because it is a model organism for plant biology study, its genetic code has been mapped, allowing scientists to investigate how the alien soil will alter plant gene expression. Arabidopsis thaliana has also been grown in space before, since it was grown on the International Space Station.

The results were apparently so promising that the researchers were taken aback. All of the seeds germinated after two days, despite the fact that they hadn’t expected all of them to sprout.

“They started sprouting within two days!” remarked Anna-Lisa Paul, the paper’s first author and a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida. “Everything sprouted,” says the narrator. I can’t express how surprised we were! Until roughly day six, every plant – whether in a lunar sample or a control – looked the same.”

After two days, the seeds put in lunar soil sprouted.

Despite the fact that the sprouts started out well, the ones placed in lunar soil began to suffer, and it became evident that they grew very differently than the control group. In addition to a reddish pigmentation on the leaves, which is a symptom of stress, their growth was much slower and their roots became stunted.

The crew removed the plants just as they began to blossom, crushed them up, and began examining their DNA. This demonstrated that the plants were influenced by the foreign soil and reacted in a similar way to those cultivated in other hostile situations.

Surprisingly, there was a difference in sprout growth according on which lunar sample they were planted in. This is because the samples taken during the Apollo 11 mission were more exposed to the harsh space environment than those collected during the Apollo 12 and 17 missions.

The plants were under a lot of stress because of the lunar soil.

While the “space plants” did not prove to be as hardy as those grown in Earth soil, the experiment was a success, and it opens the door to the possibility of cultivating plants on the Moon in the future. It also gives scientists a lot of possibilities to learn more about space exploration.

Following that, the researchers aim to undertake a series of follow-up tests to see how growing plants in the Moon’s environment affects the soil.