Scientists grow cress seeds in moon dust collected by NASA, potentially paving the way for space-grown food

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Scientists grow cress seeds in moon dust collected by nasa, potentially paving the way for space-grown food

Scientists say they have overcome one of the biggest barriers to deep space travel – by growing food in dust from the moon.

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Researchers nurtured cress in surface soil, or regolith, brought back by Neil Armstrong and other Apollo astronauts more than 50 years ago.

However, they did admit the seeds grew less than perfectly – and that the thale cress they produced is not particularly tasty.

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The breakthrough, in which the nutrients lacking in moon dust were added during watering, opens up the possibility of human colonies on other planets.

Over the next decade Nasa’s Artemis programme will lay the foundations for a colony on the moon from where a manned voyage to Mars could be launched.

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A lunar base would make this far easier and cheaper, as it would save on the tons of fuel needed to escape Earth’s gravity.

Professor Robert Ferl, of the University of Florida, said: “Artemis will require a better understanding of how to grow plants in space. It makes sense that we would want to use the soil that’s already there to grow plants”.

“So, what happens when you grow plants in lunar soil, something that is totally outside of a plant’s evolutionary experience? What would plants do in a lunar greenhouse? Could we have lunar farmers?’

The experiment to cultivate “off-world crops” echoes 2015 film The Martian, in which Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, becomes stranded on Mars and grows potatoes using fertiliser.

He survives for weeks before the plants are eventually killed by the planet’s harsh atmosphere.

One of the Florida team’s big-gest problems was getting hold of moon dust for their experiment.

After 11 years of negotiations with Nasa they were loaned just 12 grams in which they sowed seeds in tiny vials and gave them water, nutrients and light.

The scientists were not sure if they would germinate, but nearly all did.

Professor Anna-Lisa Paul, a space biologist, said: “We were amazed. We did not predict that. That told us the lunar soils didn’t interrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination”.

Seeds were also planted in volcanic ash and mineral mixtures mimicking soils on the moon and Mars.

Some “lunar” plants were smaller and grew more slowly.

However, the breakthrough opens the door to “resource independence” from earth.

Nasa and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are committed to sending people to Mars in the near future, but the logistical challenges are huge.

Transporting food all the way from Earth would be impractical, so producing it locally is imperative.

Previous experiments have tried to simulate lunar soil, rather than using the real thing, but after the latest experiment there are more questions that must be answered.

Co-author Dr Stephen Elardo said: “The moon is a very, very dry place. How will minerals in the lunar soil respond to having a plant grown in them, with the added water and nutrients?”

But Prof Ferl added: “We wanted to do this experiment because, for years , we were asking this question: Would plants grow in lunar soil? The answer, it turns out, is yes”.

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