First-Ever Moondust-Grown Chickpeas Game Changer for Astronauts

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Chickpeas have been successfully grown in soil mixed with moondust for the very first time, opening new doors for food production in future lunar missions.

Researchers at Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences grew the chickpeas in mixtures containing up to 75 percent lunar regolith, or moondust, according to a new preprint paper on the bioRxiv server, which hosts non-peer-reviewed papers before they are published in scientific journals.

This discovery is hoped to pave the way to a future where astronauts on the moon can supplement the food they take from Earth with food grown in space.

“Food sustainability is one of the most significant barriers to long-term space travel. Providing resources from Earth is not cost-efficient, and resupply missions are not viable to meet the needs of long-term life in deep space conditions,” the authors wrote in the paper.

“Plants in space can provide a source of nutrition and oxygen, reducing the reliance on packaged foods, reducing resupply needs, and extending the duration of missions. Using lunar regolith simulant, we employ a novel methodology to create a sustainable and productive growth medium to support the cultivation of horticultural crops on the Moon.”

The chickpeas grown in 75 percent moondust soil mix. Varying degrees of chlorophyll can be seen in the study at five weeks.

Jessica Atkin

The moondust, which is usually completely inhospitable to crops, was made fertile with the addition of Earth soil fungi and worm manure, also known as vermicompost. This made the moondust much more welcoming to a growing plant.

The presence of the fungi and the vermicompost helps absorb toxic contaminants in the moondust and increases the tolerance of the plants to toxins and environmental stressors. Additionally, as moondust is also very fine, with tiny particles, the fungi and vermicompost help to improve the structure of the soil.

“The Moon doesn’t have soil like Earth does,” Jessica Atkin, a graduate student in soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said in a statement. “On Earth, the soil has organic material filled with nutrients and microorganisms, which support plant growth. Those are missing on the moon. This adds to other challenges, such as reduced gravity, radiation and toxic elements.”

Gareth Dorrian, a research fellow in space science at the University of Birmingham, told Newsweek: “Moondust is not a naturally great substance in which to grow plants for a number of reasons. Firstly, it lacks any substantial quantities of nitrogen, which is critical for protein formation in plant cells. In Earth soil, nitrogen is abundant and forms a part of the nitrogen cycle, a process which is absent on the Moon.

“Secondly, lunar soil (or regolith) is the product of billions of years’ worth of moon rocks being gradually pulverized down into a powder by micrometeorite impacts; individual grains are often tiny shards of volcanic glass or native iron which is abrasive and not great for delicate biological systems. Thirdly, lunar soil is very dry and contains almost no free water.”

The fungi specifically help by trapping toxins in their own biomass, preventing too much of it from entering the plant vegetation and seeds. The vermicompost, which is created as worms consume and excrete out soil, provides nutrients for the growing crops and improves the physical properties of the soil.

“Adding worm manure and fungi has two benefits. Firstly, these fungi can help plant roots take up nutrients better from the soil. Secondly, they can change the texture of the soil to make it ‘softer’ by increasing the amount of organic matter in it. This helps plant roots grow and absorb available nutrients better,” Suruchi Roychoudhry, a research fellow in plant molecular biology at the University of Leeds, told Newsweek.

These components could be shipped into space, with red wiggler worms even being taken to the moon to create manure from biowaste such as food scraps and clothing.

“The novelty about using vermiculture is that it can all be done in space, whether in a space station or on the moon, reducing the need for resupply missions,” Atkin said.

Chickpeas were chosen for the experiment due to their beneficial relationship with the soil fungi.

“They are a great protein source and use less water and nitrogen than other food crops,” Atkin said. “We used a desi chickpea variety to deal with the space limitations inside a habitat.”

moon dust plant
Plants that provided the first chickpea seeds in a 75 percent mixture of simulated moondust. This could be a way to supplement food supplies during moon missions.

Courtesy of Jessica Atkin

However, the chickpeas grown in the moondust mixture took 120 days to mature, compared to the 100 days it takes in Earth soil, and the moondust crops all showed signs of stress.

Additionally, the plants grown in 100 percent moondust soil did not survive long enough to produce chickpeas.

“Visual observations of plant stress included stunting, reduced leaf area, limited shoot branching, and death in plants exposed to 100% LRS concentrations,” the authors wrote in the paper. “However, plants grown in 100 percent LRS inoculated with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi demonstrated an average two-week survival extension compared to non-inoculated plants.”

The researchers hope to further develop this moondust soil to improve the growth of the chickpeas, and allow for the growth of other crops.

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