Bacteria could turn the Moon into a farm for lunar colonies, scientists say

Bacteria could be used to improve the fertility of lunar soil to allow us to live on the Moon, scientists have said.

The breakthrough new study combined three different bacteria on lunar soil to see how it would affect the growth of a plant – and found that it dramatically helped improve the fertility of material taken from the Moon. Adding the three bacteria to the soil helped the researchers grow the planet, which was a relative of tobacco named benth.

The bacteria work by increasing the amount of a kind of phosphorus in the soil. That is a major nutrient for plants and adding more of it means that plants will grow more easily and populous.

Previous studies have shown that it is possible to grow cress using lunar soil. But it has been found to be difficult to support plants, and studies have shown that it is actually worse than volcanic ash from our own planet.

What’s more, lunar soil has less nitrogen, which is required to grow plants. What phosphorus there is also comes in a form that cannot be used by plants.

If we are to live on the Moon, therefore, scientist will have to find new ways to grow plants, which will require improving the quality of the soil. And the researchers suggest that the breakthrough trio of bacteria could be a key step towards that aim.

That in turn will help support life in future lunar bases, the researchers note in a new study published today.

The work is described in a new paper, ‘Phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria improve the growth of Nicotiana benthamiana on lunar regolith simulant by dissociating insoluble inorganic phosphorus’ published in Communications Biology. It was conducted by Zhencai Sun and colleagues from the China Agricultural University in Beijing.

In the research, the scientists put benth seeds into lunar soil that had been treated with the three bacteria: B. mucilaginosus, B. megaterium, and P. fluorescens. They then let the plants grow as usual.

They found that the plants growing in soil treated with the bacteria had 104 per cent more chlorophyll than those that had been grown in another soil that only contained dead bacteria.

What’s more, the plants grown with the special stimulant had longer stems and roots after six days of growth, and were heavier and had wider clusters of leaves after 24 days of growth compared with that control group.

The materials therefore “have great application value and prospects for future space exploration”, the researchers conclude.

But they also note that care must be taken when it is actually used. Introducing bacteria to alien soil could “pose a threat to human crews”, the scientists warn.