From Moon 'Dust' to Moon 'Soil': Graduate Student Grows Chickpeas in Amended Moondust

Feb 02, 2024

By Kay Ledbetter

A love for space exploration led Jessica Atkin, a Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduate student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, to produce the first-ever moondust-grown chickpeas.

Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences graduate student Jessica Atkin was able to produce the first chickpea seeds in a 75% mixture of simulated moondust.

Using simulated moondust, because there's not enough  on Earth for experimentation, Atkin and her colleagues grew chickpeas to seed in mixtures of up to 75% moondust—a groundbreaking endeavor in several aspects.

As a result of her study, future moon-bound astronauts may have the opportunity to substitute a portion of their prepackaged foods with protein derived from crops grown on the .

"The moon doesn't have soil like Earth does," Atkin said. "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."

To help address some of those challenges, Atkin has been developing a  to improve the structure and nutrient composition of lunar dust, making it suitable for growing crops.

Atkin collaborated on the project with Sara Oliveira Santos, a doctoral candidate at Brown University, who contributed expertise in addressing hydrological issues arising from the small particle size of the moondust.

Moondust research

Atkin has been working on this research under the guidance of her advisors, Terry Gentry, Ph.D., soil and water microbiologist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and Betsy Pierson, Ph.D., an expert in plant-microbe interactions in the Department of Horticultural Sciences. Also contributing to the research is George Vandemark, Ph.D., a U.S. Department of Agriculture legume breeder and faculty member at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.

Varying degrees of chlorophyll can be seen in the chickpea moondust study at five weeks.

Using soil regeneration mechanisms from Earth, Atkin leveraged the interaction between beneficial soil fungi and vermicompost, or worm manure, to create a fertile moondust. These amendments help sequester toxic contaminants from the dust, change the soil structure for better hydraulic properties, and increase plant tolerance to stressors and toxins.

Three primary actions help fungi address elemental contamination. First, toxins are sequestered and bound in the soil mixture, making them less available for plant uptake. This prevents contaminants from being taken up by . If some toxin gets by, the fungus traps it in its own biomass and that of the plant root, limiting the amount of toxins taken into the vegetation and seeds.

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