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Plants grown on lunar soil have stunted roots and smaller stems and leaves.

Latest NewsPlants grown on lunar soil have stunted roots and smaller stems and leaves.

During the Apollo missions (from 1969 to 1972), NASA astronauts brought back between rocks and sand (regolith) 382 kilograms of the Moon. This material was studied from all sides of science, but it never occurred to anyone to use it as farmland. Well, yes, in the 1970s, when it was still feared that pathogens or dangerous combinations of minerals lurked in it, various plants were sprayed to see what would happen to them. Now, with new human plans to return to the moon, a team of researchers has used some of the dust brought in 50 years ago to grow plants on lunar soil for the first time. They made sure that, yes, vegetables sprout and grow, but they do it much worse than on land.

NASA announced its Artemis program a few years ago. Its mission is to reach the moon in the middle of this decade and establish a permanent base by its end. Among the many things new Selenites will need is food. In addition to what comes from Earth, they plan to grow their own vegetables there. There are already thousands of proposals for planting vegetables on lunar soil. This new interest inspired a group of researchers from the University of Florida. They wanted to plant seeds in the regolith that NASA has had in its labs for years to study the interaction between extraterrestrial material and terrestrial biology. Finally, a few months ago they received 12 grams of soil from the moon. This was not enough for a large estate, but they did manage to plant a few specimens of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant with white flowers. A. thaliana was the first plant whose genome was sequenced, and to scientists it is to plants what laboratory mice are to animals.

Lunar soils do not interfere with the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.

Anna-Lisa Paul, professor of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Florida

Nearly all the plants germinated between 48 and 60 hours after the seed was sown, and soon little leaves emerged from the lunar soil. This is something they didn’t expect, admit the creators of this small moon garden, the details of which were published in the scientific journal Communications Biology. Anna-Lisa Paul, a professor of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Florida and the study’s first author, says they were amazed, but it helped them discover that “lunar soils don’t interfere with the hormones and signals that do.” during plant germination.

But on the sixth day, they saw that something was wrong. After pruning the plants to focus their study on a single stem (they also didn’t have too much soil), they made sure the prunings had stunted roots that were thicker, twisted, and shorter than the specimens that were planted in the ground, controls plants . And this despite the fact that the floors in them were not used any. They planted the seeds of A. thaliana in AO-1A, a conglomerate used in space science that mimics the composition and morphology of lunar regolith composed of volcanic and extreme materials on Earth. The development of the aerial part of the seedlings from the eighth day was slower and more uneven, with fewer and smaller leaves, reddish spots appeared on them. All of these symptoms indicated that they had undergone stress that samples grown in earth soil did not.

To determine where this stress came from, the researchers studied the RNA molecules present in plant cells, their transcriptomes. “When the body is faced with a stressful environment, signals are activated so that it releases substances that help it cope with that stress,” Paul says in an email. “Imagine that you need to do something for work, and you are looking in the toolbox for what you need (I want to hammer a nail, so I take a hammer). Knowing which tool we took, we can find out the nature of the problem that we had, ”says the American botanist.

The image shows one of the last walks of a man, in this case astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, from the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon. It was December 13, 1972.NASA/Gene Cernan

“RNA molecules correspond to genes responsible for the plant’s response to stress,” Paul explains. In the case of these plants, reading the sequence of nucleotides that make up each molecule allowed them to test for different genetic responses depending on soil, “being able to observe the effects of lunar regolith on plants at the level of their genetic instrumentation.” , concludes. The genes that intervene in situations of excess salt, the presence of metals and oxidative stress are expressed most differently.

The reading of the transcriptome was so accurate that it also made it possible to distinguish between plants grown on lunar soil, but brought by different missions: Apollo 11 (the first in which people set foot on the moon), 12 (performed in the same 1969) and Apollo 12. 17, the last time a person walked on the satellite. From each of them, the researchers received four grams of regolith, and this fact allowed them to speculate why lunar plants grow that way. Externally, A. thaliana specimens reared in the samples from the first two missions had a similar appearance. But the ones planted in the soil delivered by Apollo 17 looked better overall. Inside, at the genetic level, the difference was confirmed: in the latter, transcriptome differentiation was less than in the former.

Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landed in areas that scientists call old or mature, more exposed to cosmic radiation and solar wind, while Apollo 17 delivered more protected and less mature material to Earth. For the authors of the study, this could explain the varying response of this small plant to different soils and help to choose where to plant the first lunar crops. By the way, the authors of the study cut the plants for genetic analysis before their small white flowers appeared, about 30 days later. So it is not known what the flowers on the moon will be like.

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