[KISTI과학향기]Successful cultivation of plants in the lunar soil brought by the Apollo probe! : ZUM News

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Mark Watney, the protagonist in the movie ‘The Martian’, is left alone in an unexpected accident while on a mission to Mars. He has four months to hold out until the next expedition arrives. The protagonist creates a historic event of growing potatoes in the soil of Mars by mobilizing all of science and technology. But something like a movie actually happened. Scientists have succeeded in growing plants on real lunar soil.

In the movie The Martian, there is a scene where the protagonist, Mark Watney, grows potatoes on Mars soil. (Source: 20th Century Fox Korea)

◇ Arabidopsis thaliana sprouts from real lunar soil collected by the Apollo probe

Recently, a team led by Professor Anna Lisa Paul from the University of Florida, USA, succeeded in sprouting and growing Arabidopsis thaliana in the soil of the moon collected by the Apollo probe and published it in the international scientific journal Communication’s Biology. In the past, plants have been grown in soil that mimics lunar soil, but this is the first time that a plant has sprouted in real lunar soil.

First, the research team created a miniature garden by arranging dozens of tubes that will serve as flowerpots in a plastic dish used for culturing cells. Only 12 grams of lunar soil can be used for research. As the quantity was small, the sample pot had to be very small. The researchers planted 3 to 5 Arabidopsis seeds with 0.9 g of lunar soil in each of the micro-tubular pots. After that, water and nutrient solution were injected, and they were observed and managed like a normal flowerpot, such as basking in the sun. In the other tube pots, a control group was created with soil that was collected from the extreme environment of the earth and soil that mimics the soil of the moon with volcanic ash.

As a result, all pots sprouted from two days after the seeds were planted, and the same growth rate was observed until the sixth day. Professor Paul, who led the study, said, “A very surprising thing happened.” He said, “We confirmed that the lunar soil does not interfere with the hormones and vital signs of plants.”

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Arabidopsis thaliana 6 days after planting the seeds. On the left is a plant grown in soil that mimics the soil of the moon, and on the right is a plant grown in real soil on the moon. (Source: UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones)

◇Inhibition of growth of Arabidopsis thaliana grown on moon soil

However, after 6 days, differences began to appear. The control potted plants grew well, whereas the lunar soil potted plants had different developmental states. Some plants have small leaves, and some have poor roots. Plants grew slower in lunar soil compared to control potted plants. Even one potted plant died.

For a more accurate confirmation, the researchers took out plants grown in the lunar soil after 20 days and analyzed the genes. Then, in the genes of plants, a pattern of expression appeared when they were subjected to salt, metal, or oxidative stress. In response, the research team analyzed that “the plants accepted the differences in the lunar soil as stress” and that “this stress affected plant growth.”

They also found that the growth rate was different depending on where the lunar soil was harvested. The lunar samples used by the researchers are divided into three main categories. The soil was collected by the lunar probes Apollo 11, 12, and 17. Among these, the plants of the Apollo 11 soil samples showed the most signs of stress. This soil is a sample taken from the shallowest part of the lunar surface compared to other soils. As a result, they were more exposed to the solar wind coming from space and affected the composition of the soil.

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Arabidopsis thaliana after 16 days. Compared to the control group (JSC1A), Arabidopsis thaliana grown on lunar soil was smaller or even withered. (Source: Communications Biology)

The lunar soil, called ‘Regolith’, is very different from Earth’s soil in composition. It is mainly composed of dust, dirt, and broken stones, and is very dry and crumbly. It lacks water as well as microorganisms or inorganic substances necessary for plants to grow. It is not yet known in detail how the composition changed due to exposure to extreme space environments such as solar wind and cosmic radiation. This is something that scientists must find out if they want to go to the moon for missions or migrate to live.

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Astronaut Eugene Cernan on the moon on the Apollo 17 mission. They took the largest number of soil samples throughout the Apollo mission and brought them back to Earth. (Source: NASA)

Professor Paul said, “Plant cultivation experiments have helped to distinguish the presence of pathogens, unknown components, and harm to terrestrial life on Earth when soil is collected from the moon and brought to Earth. “We will work to figure out how to make the plants grow under less stress on lunar soil.” He added, “This is the first step in the technology of making oxygen or making food on the moon, and we expect that research on sending humans to the moon through the Artemis program will also be accelerated.”

So can plants actually grow on the lunar soil? Professor Paul confidently answered “Yes!” to this question.

Written by Yoonsun Lee, columnist

[Copyright © 전자신문. 무단전재-재배포금지]

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