One Small Pot of Soil, One Giant Leap in Space Agriculture Knowledge



Soil crisis is the next big shortage that is already happening amid the growing CO2 emissions, semiconductor shortage, and water shortage while a list of pollution poisons the lifeforms on earth. What if the planet borrowed some soil from other planets? Would that work? The concept is not new. Almost half the experiments carried out by the International Space Station are about biotechnology and farming in space. 

In a fascinating experiment, a group of NASA-funded scientists has succeeded in growing plants in soil from the moon. But how is that possible when the moon’s soil is believed not to contain organic matter or nutrients required for plants to grow? 

Future space missions would save time and money by allowing longer and further journeys.

"This research is critical to NASA's long-term human exploration goals," said Bill Nelson, the head of the US space agency. "We'll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space."

How were the Plants Grown?

The researchers used only 12 grams (a few teaspoons) of lunar dirt obtained from various locations on the moon during the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 flights for their experiment.

They put around a gram of dirt (called ‘regolith’), water, and seeds in small thimble-sized pots. Every day, they also fed the plants a fertilizer solution.

The researchers chose Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard greens cousin, to plant because it grows quickly and has been extensively studied. It has a well-known genetic code and responds to hazardous settings, including space.

According to NASA, the researchers then placed the trays in terrarium boxes and provided fertilizer solutions on a daily basis. Volcanic ash was employed as the control group's soil.

The plants all germinated within 48 to 60 hours, according to the study.

"We were amazed," said Anna-Lisa Paul, another one of the study's authors. "We did not predict that. That told us that the lunar soils didn't interrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination."


However, by the sixth day, the plants in lunar soil were growing differently than the thale cress control group. According to NASA, researchers discovered that the lunar regolith plants grew slower and had "stunted roots." "Some of the plants also had stunted leaves and reddish coloring."

NASA reported that after 20 days, RNA sequencing of the plants revealed that those growing in lunar soil were stressed and behaved in ways that plants do in hard conditions.

"At the genetic level, the plants were pulling out the tools typically used to cope with stressors, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, so we can infer that the plants perceive the lunar soil environment as stressful," Paul said. 

Plants responded differently in lunar soil samples as well. The Apollo 11 soil plants were "not as vigorous" as the soil plants from the other two Apollo missions. Each mission collected soil from different places on the moon, according to the researchers.

Nonetheless, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the research is key to understanding "how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth."

Scientists said they would continue to study lunar soil as NASA plans robotic expeditions to the moon's the South Pole.

Aside from that, technology developed through breakthroughs in space agriculture might certainly be used to improve agriculture on earth. Astronauts, for example, astronauts have to use human waste to fertilize crops like lettuce. The sanitary technologies and procedures created for this could be used on urban farms. Closing the energy transmission loop in this way, as well as lowering dependency on chemical fertilizers, would be extremely helpful to community farms.

How does Space Farming Work?

Agriculture in space is still in its infancy. There are currently miniature, engineered space greenhouses on the International Space Station that cultivate plants using rigorous environmental control. The real problem will be scaling this up to the point where it can support humans for long periods.

One of the most challenging aspects of in-spaceship farming is obtaining sufficient water and nutrients and cycling them as efficiently as feasible. Other challenges that we don't face on earth, such as cosmic radiation, a lack of atmosphere, and low light levels, will have to be considered as well.

Some of the lessons and technology created for space agriculture could be applied and successful on earth as well. These advancements would result in higher-yielding food production and harvests, which would benefit the entire food system.

What about Using Other Planet’s Soil

There are various factors to consider when it comes to farming on Mars. Minerals, organic stuff, gases, liquids, and numerous species make up the earth's soil. The soil on Mars is very different, with broken volcanic rock covering it and no living microbes. However, Mars' atmosphere contains carbon dioxide and nitrogen, as well as frozen water.

According to biochemist Lance Seefeldt, one of the first steps will be to research the best techniques to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia using bacteria and solar energy. Inoculating plants with rhizobia to aid nitrogen fixation, similar to what we do on earth with legumes, is one possible answer.

Another important factor to consider is that Mars has just 60 percent of earth's light intensity, which means photosynthesis will occur at a much slower rate.

Soil health is essential for soil retention, plant health, agricultural productivity, biodiversity conservation, and a variety of other benefits. It is subject to erosion due to stresses and abuses that decrease its vigor, fertility, and resistance. Many soils worldwide are sick and dying, and they are dying at an alarming rate. They are dying as a result of a pandemic, with the human race as the pandemic agent. However, if we are the problem, we can also identify and implement solutions.

However, we must approach the problem as a health/wellness issue, a global health issue that requires traditional medical procedures such as diagnosis, prevention, and treatment, and not as a commercial resource issue. Importantly, we must also develop a national and international integrated socioeconomic-political-legislative framework for soil resource preservation and management. And most importantly, we must consider the soil issue as part of a larger set of interconnected local, regional, and global crises that represent Grand Challenges that must be tackled in concert.