Scientists have grown plants in alien soil for the first time – but they look far from out of this world.
The experts produced thale cress – a member of the mustard family – from seeds planted in earth collected from the Moon during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.
Though the veg grew in the lunar soil it took ages – and looks distinctly unappetising.
The extraterrestrial plants were smaller, took longer to develop and showed signs of stress including stunted roots and colour changes.
Boffins still hailed it a breakthrough and the first small step in what could be a giant leap for human space exploration – suggesting man may one day farm on the Moon.
Professor Robert Ferl, who led the project at the University of Florida, US, said: “When humans move as civilisations we always take our agriculture with us. This will be incredibly important on the Moon.
“The ability to take plants successfully is how we’ll grow our own food, purify our air and clean our water – things that will allow us to stay there for a while.
“We can grow plants hydroponically but the idea of bringing lunar soil into a lunar greenhouse is the stuff of lunar exploration dreams.
“Showing that plants will grow in lunar soil is a huge step in being able to establish lunar colonies.’’
Experts are planning further research into the plants’ stunted growth before astronauts can start making their own egg and cress sandwiches.
The study’s co-author Professor Stephen Elardo said: “The Moon is very poor in water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus so naturally lunar soils don’t have the nutrients to support plant growth.
“The physical characteristics are also not terribly hospitable.’’
He said Moon soil was `very fine grained’ but fragments were `quite sharp and abrasive’ and contained glass and iron that do not appear on Earth and which plants `have not evolved to grow successfully in’.
But Dr Sandra Knapp, a merit researcher in botany at the Natural History Museum in London, suggested over time plants could alter soil to ensure they flourish.
“Toxic soils can cause growth defects in plants or kill them through toxicity,’’ she said.
However many plants are very capable of adapting to toxic conditions.
While there is no oxygen or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for plants to grow on the surface of the Moon, plants could theoretically alter lunar soil in the same way they alter soil here on Earth over time if they were grown in the conditions of our planet.’’
The ability to grow food in outer space would be a game-changer.
Plants can convert waste carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts into oxygen while their nutritional properties can ward off hunger and diseases such as scurvy.
In 1966 the former Soviet Union launched seeds into orbit which grew successfully following their return to Earth.
Thale cress was the first plant to be grown in space in 1982.
Russian cosmonauts have been eating space-grown grub for 20 years and Nasa astronauts tucked into their first crop in 2015.
In 2019 the first probe to land on the dark side of the Moon – China’s Chang’e-4 – took seeds with it in a biosphere experiment.
Cotton seeds successfully sprouted – the first to do so on another world – but died the next day due to temperature control problems.
But plants had never been grown in lunar soil – known technically as regolith – until now.
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