Scientists find way to make lunar soil fertile for agriculture

Scientists have made a significant breakthrough in turning lunar soil into fertile ground for agriculture, according to a report by Reuters. The findings could pave the way for long-term human settlements on the moon by providing a sustainable source of food.

The successful transformation of lunar soil into fertile ground opens up new possibilities for sustained human presence on the moon. With further research and development, a lunar agriculture system could meet the long-term food and oxygen requirements of future lunar missions, making human settlements on the moon a real possibility.

While it is not currently possible to grow crops in plain lunar soil, researchers have discovered a method to enhance its fertility. By introducing bacteria that increase the availability of phosphorus, an essential nutrient for plants, the scientists were able to transform inhospitable lunar regolith into bio-friendly soil.

Experiments conducted in a laboratory in China involved growing a relative of tobacco using simulated moon soil treated with three species of bacteria. The results were promising, with the plants showing significant growth compared to those grown in untreated soil. The bacteria made the soil more acidic, causing phosphate-containing minerals to dissolve and release phosphorus, thereby increasing its availability for plant growth.

Lead author of the study, Yitong Xia from China Agricultural University in Beijing, emphasised the importance of these findings. “We may be able to use these microbes to turn the lunar regolith into a substrate suitable for plant cultivation in future lunar greenhouses,” said Xia.

In a separate study conducted last year, researchers in the United States successfully grew Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering weed, in containers filled with actual moon soil collected during NASA missions. However, the plants did not grow as robustly in lunar soil compared to volcanic ash from Earth, indicating the need for additional measures to enhance its fertility.

To create soil with similar chemical and physical properties as lunar regolith, the researchers used volcanic material from the Changbai mountains in China’s Jilin Province. They tested various bacteria, ultimately identifying three species – Bacillus mucilaginosus, Bacillus megaterium, and Pseudomonas fluorescens – that produced the most beneficial effects.

Reuters reported that Xia highlighted the potential of establishing manned lunar bases in the future, emphasizing the need for sustainable food, oxygen, and water supply. A greenhouse system for plant cultivation on the moon could significantly reduce the dependency on Earth-moon transportation. Plants, through photosynthesis, produce oxygen, which is essential for human survival.

Xia explained that there are several methods to grow plants on the moon, such as transporting horticultural soil, using hydroponic systems, or employing soil substitutes like hydrogels. However, these methods require significant rocket carrying capability, making them economically unsustainable. In contrast, the microbial improvement technique developed in this study offers a more efficient and cost-effective solution by utilizing the moon’s own resources.