By Alvaro Blanco
Miami, May 17 (EFE).- Lunar farms will be a reality very soon and allow astronauts living in permanent bases on the Moon to enjoy the same high-quality fruits and vegetables they are accustomed to on Earth, US molecular biologist and horticulturist Anna-Lisa Paul told Efe via videoconference.
That expert led a team that last week announced a new breakthrough in efforts to grow plants in small samples of lunar soil brought back by three of the Apollo landing missions.
Paul, fellow horticulturist Robert Ferl and geologist Stephen Elardo, all from the University of Florida, opted to grow thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) plants in just a few grams of lunar soil that had been gathered by the crews of the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions and provided to them by NASA.
Their small-scale experiment marks a first step in humanity’s quest for extraterrestrial farming.
And now that she and her team know that plant growth in lunar soil is possible, Paul said the process of developing lunar farms should move relatively quickly.
Perhaps it will be a reality in between five and 10 years, she said of research that coincides with NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon some time this decade as part of its Artemis program.
And growing plants in lunar regolith, or soil, will not only be important to ensure the self-sufficiency of future, much longer-term space missions. They also will help clean those colonies’ water and air and also be counted on to provide psychological benefits for astronauts living in inhospitable places like the Moon or, one day, Mars.
The plants taken to outer space, she said, should be multi-use, while a balance will need to be struck between the amount of material obtained from them relative to what goes to waste.
In that regard, Paul mentioned radishes, turnips and several types of leafy vegetables as the plants easiest to grow and the least wasteful.
The plants grown by the University of Florida researchers did not exceed a few millimeters in height and performed more poorly than control plants grown in earthly volcanic ash.
The thale cress plants grown in lunar soil “took longer to develop expanded leaves, were smaller in rosette diameter over time and some were severely stunted and deeply pigmented, a typical indicator of plant stress,” the authors said in their study, which was titled, “Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration” and was published in the Communications Biology journal.
Besides the challenge involved in scaling up the modest plant growth those scientists achieved during their research, another complication will be to develop the engineering needed to come up with a greenhouse capable of providing the plants what they need – including water and some nutrients, ideally obtained from the moon’s habitat – in an energy-efficient manner.
Despite the different obstacles, Paul expects that the taste of the fruits and vegetables grown in regolith should not differ much from those cultivated in earthly soil.
After the thale cress plants grew for a period of 20 days, biochemical analyses were carried out on their leaves and small stems to determine how they responded at the molecular level to be able to grow and survive in adverse conditions.
That information will help researchers determine what they can do to help plants grow in regolith, either by making the soil friendlier, genetically modifying the plant or choosing crops that can function better in these types of environments.
In that regard, Paul recalled that many varieties of plants grow on Earth in hostile conditions without any need for genetic modification.
The scientist said that in 100 years astronauts will be able to eat a fresh salad whose ingredients all were grown on the Moon, adding that wherever human beings are, plants also will be found. EFE