They manage to grow chickpeas in lunar soil

Scientists have managed to grow chickpeas in lunar soil, a fact very similar to what was seen in Andy Weir's novel "The Martian" which takes us to a near future where space exploration has reached unprecedented levels. The plot follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who, due to fate, finds himself alone on Mars.

Using ingenuity and scientific knowledge of botany, Watney managed to grow potatoes in the harsh lands of Mars to survive in an unknown environment. This plot, a combination of science and fiction, makes us wonder: is it really possible to grow plants on extraterrestrial soil? Surprisingly, the answer is closer to reality than we think. But instead of potatoes, there were chickpeas and instead of Martian soil there was lunar soil.

Lunar soil, arid and strange land

Lunar soil, or lunar regolith, is primarily composed of rock fragments and dust with a unique composition, formed by meteorite impacts over billions of years. It is rich in minerals but also in heavy metals and, unlike the rich soil of many terrestrial ecosystems, which is full of nutrients and microorganisms essential for life, the soil on the lunar surface is a completely sterile substrate.

lunar soil
Arabidopsis thaliana

These components, which are not present on the Moon, are essential for the growth, health and resistance of plants to adverse conditions.

Since the first Apollo missions brought back samples of lunar soil, there have been many attempts to grow plants in this soil or in simulated versions of it. In 2022, researchers Anna-Lisa Paul, Steven Elardo and Robert Ferl from the University of Florida attempted to grow the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, one of the most used model plants in the laboratory.

The results, published in the scientific journal Biology Communications, magazine dependent Nature, showed that plants grown in lunar soil showed very poor growth and severe stress symptoms.

Chickpeas grown in lunar regolith

Scientists Jessica Atkin, from Texas A&M University, and Sara Oliveira Santos, from Brown University, studied the feasibility of growing chickpeas in simulated lunar soil, a substrate created on Earth, but with the same physicochemical properties as the original. But like Mark Watney, they decided to help the plants so it's not just inert soil.

They added some vermicompost to the lunar regolith. Vermicompost is an organic fertilizer rich in nutrients and microorganisms, obtained from the decomposition of organic matter by worms. The production of this material is very simple and can be done without the need for large quantities of material.

In a hypothetical mission, dehydrated microorganisms and worms could be transported in captivity and vermicompost made from food scraps and other organic waste. A constant supply of these raw materials is not necessary, they are only necessary to start the process and, as the plant grows, its same leaves and dead parts are used to continue the process.

lunar soil
chickpea plant

Mycorrhizal fungi were also used. This type of organisms enters into a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants, especially legumes such as chickpeas, improving their absorption of nutrients and their resistance to stress.
These fungi can be transferred initially in the culture medium or with live plants that transmit mycorrhizae to new germinated seeds.

Scientists say that by combining mycorrhizae and compost, they managed to grow chickpeas in a controlled environment that resembles conditions on the moon.

Although the plants showed signs of stress, this experiment was a step forward from research done with Arabidopsis. However, scientists emphasize the need to adjust the process to reduce plant stress.

Extraterrestrial crops are a challenge for agriculture

Growing plants on the Moon or Mars involves insurmountable difficulties, mainly due to the lack of a suitable atmosphere (Mars has an atmosphere, but it is inhospitable) and the harsh environmental conditions. To overcome these obstacles, specialized facilities are needed to control atmospheric pressure, humidity, temperature and air composition; something that has been done in many laboratories and does not represent a difficulty in locations outside our planet.

If the results of Atkin and Oliveira Santos' research are confirmed, under properly controlled conditions, it will be possible to grow plants in future bases on the Moon or Mars without having to transport them or move large amounts of terrestrial soil. You will only have to have spores of microorganisms, worms, organic matter and mycorrhizal cultures to make vermicompost and improve the lunar soil.

This would be a way to reduce dependence on Earth for the supply of substrates and raw materials, while minimizing the amount of cargo that must be carried on manned research expeditions and lengthening their stay without resupply. Just like Mark Watney did on Mars.

References:

  • Atkin, J. A. et al. 2024. From Dust to Seed: A Lunar Chickpea Story. bioRxiv.
  • Paul, A.-L. et al. 2022. Arabidopsis thaliana growth and gene expression under simulated lunar regolith. Communications Biology, 5

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