Gardening Plant science

First Plants Grow in Lunar Soil

Scientists take the first step along the road to extraterrestrial gardening by learning we can grow plants in lunar soil.

By Larry Hodgson

Fifty years after the first samples of moon dirt and dust (“regolith”) were brought back to earth by the various Apollo missions, researchers at the Space Plants Lab at the University of Florida have tried using the product to grow plants for the first time. They published their report on May 12, 2022.

This came after years of quarantine in case some sort of deadly lunar microbe might be hitching a ride in the particles. Then other scientists carried out endless other studies on the composition of lunar rocks and dust, their history and much more. But this is the first that a horticultural team used it.

According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, “This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space.”

Lunar Soil: A Precious Commodity

The tests were done by the team of Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul and Dr. Rob Ferl, professors in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Arabidopsis plant in the wild.
Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) is probably the most studied plant in the world. Photo: Stefan.lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons

The plant tested is a fast-growing annual called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a common laboratory plant in the cabbage family long used as a model organism for research into plant biology.

Since lunar soil is very rare and precious, the researchers had to apply years in advance and only received a small amount. That meant the experiment had to be on a small scale.

Lunar regolith is largely small pieces of basaltic rock with sharp, ragged, cutting surfaces. A lot like volcanic ash. Most of the minerals it contains occur on earth, but also some don’t. That’s the case, for example, of minerals that immediately oxidize on Earth, but remain intact in space and on the Moon.

The scientists dusted about 1 teaspoon of lunar regolith into tiny growth tubes alongside a control group that used an earth-based soil of similar makeup: volcanic ash! Then they added the seeds. They placed the seedling trays in a growth chamber under good light and high humidity. They also supplied them with water and a dilute nutrient solution. In other words, the team gave them much the same care you would to any seeds you sow indoors.

Then they waited.

Quick Results

Arabidopsis plant in a test tube.
Arabidopsis thaliana just a few days after germination. Photo: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

But not for long. There was already germination in just 2 days.

The scientists were thrilled by the results, though, as every seed germinated. That might seem like a small detail, but it was of critical importance. It proved there was nothing inherently bad about lunar regolith when it came to growing plants: a vital piece of information.

And further results were also encouraging. Through the early stages of growth, when the young plants largely depend on minerals and glucids found in the original seed, they grew perfectly well.

Then by the sixth day, as their roots expanded, the moon regolith plants started lagging. In spite of nutrient support, lunar plants struggled: their growth rate was slower, they suffered from stress-related depigmentation, leaves did not develop normally, roots were stunted, etc.

Seedling arabidopsis, some in lunar regollth, some in volcanic ash.
As the plants grew, those in lunar regolith (on right) were smaller and weaker. Photo: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

Still, they did grow and they were able to use minerals found in the regolith. Essentially, the plants were reacting much as they would to growing in other harsh environments, such as when the soil has too high a concentration of salt or heavy metals.

And they bloomed, or at least started to. After 20 days, just at the plants were about to flower, the team harvested and dried the plants. Then ground them up for analysis.

Interestingly, the regolith (lunar soil) reacted to its use as a substrate for growing plants too. There were changes to its texture following exposure to water, air and biological processes, including contact with microbes.

Ready to Plant a Moon Garden?

Astronaut suit placed in garden.
No, we’re not quite ready to garden on the moon yet! Photo: Debu55y, depositphotos

No, we’re not yet ready to grow fresh vegetables in lunar soil. A bit of tweaking will be needed before humans will be able to do that, but it’s now sure it will be possible. The team now hopes to go on to develop ways of actually gardening in lunar regolith, paving the way for future astronauts to someday grow more nutrient-rich plants on the Moon, or ones that will even thrive in deep space.

With upcoming moon missions and eventually even trips to Mars being studied, farming in space will be necessary. And one day space travelers will certainly be enjoying Moon salads and Mars tomatoes . . . based on information gathered from this experiment.

You can find more information about the program in this report: Scientists Grow Plants in Lunar Soil.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

11 comments on “First Plants Grow in Lunar Soil

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  2. That is totally awesome, although I do not know anything about how it all works. I would expect problems with the sterility of the regolith, at least at first. It would not have stayed sterile for long I suppose.

  3. WOW! You have the best articles.
    Reminds me of sifi movie “Silent Running”
    In the future, all plant life on Earth is becoming extinct. As many specimens as possible have been preserved in a series of enormous greenhouse-like geodesic domes, attached to large spaceships, one of which is named Valley Forge, forming part of a fleet of American Airlines space freighters, currently just outside the orbit of Saturn.

    Freeman Lowell, one of four crewmen aboard, is the resident botanist and ecologist who carefully maintains a variety of plants for their eventual return to Earth and the reforestation of the planet. Lowell spends most of his time in the domes, both cultivating the crops and attending to the animal life.

    The crew of each ship receives orders to jettison and destroy their domes and return the freighters to commercial service. After four of the six Valley Forge domes are jettisoned and blown up, Lowell rebels and opts instead to save the plants and animals on his ship. Lowell kills one of his crewmates, John, who arrives to plant explosives in his favorite dome, and his right leg is seriously injured in the process. He then jettisons and triggers the destruction of the other remaining dome, trapping and killing the remaining two crewmen.
    Lowell, Huey, and Dewey set out into deep space to maintain the forest. Lowell reprograms Huey and Dewey to plant trees and play poker. He also has them bury John in the bio-dome. Lowell begins speaking to them constantly, as if they are children.

    Huey is damaged when Lowell accidentally collides with him while driving a buggy recklessly, and Dewey sentimentally refuses to leave Huey’s side during the repairs. As time passes, Lowell is horrified when he discovers that his bio-dome is dying, but is unable to come up with a solution to the problem. When the Berkshire — another space freighter waiting to see if the Valley Forge has survived the trip around Saturn — eventually reestablishes contact, he knows that his crimes will soon be discovered. It is then that he realizes a lack of light has restricted plant growth, and he races to install lamps to correct this situation. In an effort to save the last forest before the Berkshire arrives, Lowell jettisons the bio-dome to safety. He then detonates nuclear charges, destroying the Valley Forge, the damaged Huey, and himself in the process. The final scene is of the now well-lit forest greenhouse drifting into deep space, with Dewey tenderly caring for it, holding Lowell’s battered old watering can.

  4. It really bugs me that I can’t edit a submitted comment in WordPress…

    A couple more things I just thought of… Was the Moon regolith sample(s) emitting any detectable radiation? If so, how much, and what type and/or wavelength? If it was emitting radiation, did/how did that affect the seedlings?

    And, I know it’s hard to resist, but please stop calling it Moon “soil” – it’s not soil. You’re a gardener – you know what I’m referring to. That difference might actually be used as a great “teaching moment” for pointing out why it’s not “soil”…? Thanks!

    • As you can guess, I’m not the one with the answers to the Moon regolith questions. As further tests are done and papers are produced, we’ll learn more and more. As to soil, sorry about that. I do indeed know – I tried to hold off and mostly managed, but most of my readers are going to find regolith hard to grasp. So the word soil sort of sneaked in a few times.

  5. Interesting… Being a Geoscientist, I can’t wait to see a comparison of the chemical analyses of the “moon” seedlings vs. “earth” seedlings! I know, I must be patient – that’s coming. In addition to the EXACT chemical compositions of the seedlings grown from each substrate, what should also be addressed are the EXACT compositions of the Moon regolith and the volcanic ash, and the dilute nutrient solution and how that solution composition was selected. Also, why that particular volcanic ash was selected (like, was it close to the presumed or known Moon regolith’s composition) and how it was prepared. It doesn’t sound like the Moon regolith was pulverized, but that should be made clear. One last thing – an examination/analysis to determine exactly how the composition of the Moon regolith changed due to the seedlings’ growth would provide a lot of interesting info. Interesting article.

  6. marianwhit

    Funny how we don’t seem to understand how plants change the soil they live in…we know it happens, but not a lot about it…I am glad there is more research being done in this fascinating area lately. I love this, because when Musk put a car in space, I was ranting “it should be a greenhouse, we aren’t going anywhere for long without plants, we need them in sooo many ways!” LOL

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