Plants That ‘Come Back From the Dead’ Could Be Key To Growing Crops on the Moon

Plants That ‘Come Back From the Dead’ Could Be Key To Growing Crops on the Moon

Team of researchers from Israel and abroad set out to discover which plants could survive in space ahead of 2025 Beresheet2 mission

Unique plants that can “come back from the dead” and survive extreme weather conditions might be the key to growing crops in space.

Known as resurrection plants, these rare organisms can survive without water for months or even years on end, depending on the species, and might prove to be ideal candidates for space travel.

This is precisely what a team of researchers led by Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is setting out to discover.

The team, which includes scientists from Israel, Australia, and South Africa, is currently testing to know exactly which species of plants can not only survive but also thrive on the moon as part of SpaceIL’s Beresheet2 mission, which has a launch planned in mid-2025. The experiment, known as Aleph, was proposed by Lunaria One, an international consortium of scientists.

Prof. Simon Barak, of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is coordinating a team of plant biologists and imaging specialists ahead of the launch.

Prof. Simon Barak of Ben-Gurion University working in the lab. (Courtesy)

“These [resurrection plants] are plants that you can dry down to almost being crisp and make them survive like that for years,” Barak told The Media Line. “When you rewater them they basically come back to life; they expand and look like the original adult plant that they were.”

The plants that the scientists are currently examining as potential candidates to go to the moon must meet precise criteria due to the unique challenges brought about by space travel. Firstly, they have to survive the monthslong journey to the moon and also be able to withstand extreme temperature changes, low gravity, and cosmic radiation.

The Aleph experiment will include seeds as well as plants that will be kept inside a sealed chamber with Earth’s atmosphere in one Beresheet2’s landers. When the lander powers on, there will be lights and a heater.

The plants and seeds will then be monitored using infrared cameras, photographs beamed back to Earth and possibly 3D imaging.

“Once we land, we power on and we irrigate we only have a 72-hour window for the experiment,” Barak explained. “So we need plants which are going to germinate very quickly from their seeds and become big enough that we can then monitor them. The resurrection plants will expand and be big enough that we can photograph them within those 72 hours.”

If successful, Aleph will be the first experiment of its kind to test growing conditions on the moon, as far as Barak knows. Years ago China attempted to grow cotton seeds inside a controlled environment on the moon but all of them died due to the harsh conditions.

The upcoming mission is aimed at both preparing for possible eventual human settlements on the moon, as well as helping farmers back on Earth cope with climate change.

“Human communities on the moon or on Mars are going to require plants, not just for food but for supplying oxygen, for taking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, maybe for medicinal purposes and for general well-being,” he said.

Jill Farrant, a professor and research chair in plant molecular physiology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, is one of the scientists taking part in the Aleph project. Farrant holds a research chair given by the South African Department of Science and Innovation through the National Research Foundation and is a leading expert on resurrection plants.

According to Farrant, though loosely defined, resurrection plants are an incredibly rare phenomenon.

The specific type of plant she is looking into sending on the Beresheet2 mission is Myrothamnus flabellifolius (common name: resurrection bush), which only grows in southern Africa.

Myrothamnus flabellifolius foliage during wet season, Hamerkop Kloof, Magaliesberg, South Africa. (Androstachys/Creative Commons)

“It’s the only woody resurrection plant on this planet and it’s ancient,” Farrant told The Media Line. “The reality is that they can lose 95% of their water and stay in their dry state for years. After a rain, 12 hours later they’re green and growing again.”

There are many theories as to how such plants can remain alive despite being nearly completely desiccated.

“When they’re gearing down, they stop taking carbon and making food because that’s a very dangerous process,” Farrant noted. “They have ways of shutting down photosynthesis and they reshuffle their energy.

“My theory is as a proof of concept: If we can get something there that can grow sporadically when there’s enough water it will survive until we know how to make enough water on that planet,” she added.

A final selection of plants and seeds for Beresheet2 will take place once all the tests and research are completed.

Another purpose of the project is to encourage the wider public to participate. To this end, parallel science experiments will be carried out by amateurs (for example, high school students) and professionals to compare growth to that in lunar conditions.

“The Earth is finite, our resources on Earth are finite and so the future of humanity will depend upon being able to reach the stars,” Barak said.

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