July 14, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Hardy desert moss could survive on Mars

This plant could one day pave the way for terraforming the Red Planet with its ability to thrive in drought conditions, withstand freezing temperatures and even survive high levels of radiation.

A desert moss with a special ability to tolerate the harsh conditions of Earth could also survive the desolate landscape of Mars, according to research published July 1 in The innovation. The moss, Syntrichia caninervisIt can survive droughts, cold temperatures as low as -320.8 degrees Fahrenheit (-196 degrees Celsius) and high levels of radiation, as well as all three combined under simulated conditions one might encounter on Mars.

The researchers wrote that the moss was even more resilient than other nearly indestructible organisms such as hardy algae or tardigrades, whose ability to survive has also been tested in the harsh conditions found in space. It is the first time that an entire plant, rather than a microorganism or plant spore, has been tested in relation to such a rubric.

A resistant plant

On earth, Syntrichia caninervis It can be found as ground cover in desert areas of Tibet, the Middle East, the Mojave Desert, and Antarctica. Even in harsh conditions, moss does much more than survive. Mosses like this one also survive. Support the local ecosystem By providing nutrients and aiding in decomposition, among many other functions, the plant has evolved several advantages that help it survive, including the ability to continue photosynthesis while covered in snow, prevent water loss through the overlapping structure of its leaves, and reflect the sun's intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation through hair-like bristles called awns on the tops of its leaves.

Because Syntrichia caninervis Since moss grows well in the most extreme environments on Earth, the team decided to test it in even harsher conditions. The researchers subjected the moss to cold by placing it in a freezer at -112 F (-80 C) for up to five years. The team also placed the moss plants in a tank of liquid nitrogen to subject them to even colder temperatures for up to 30 days.

In all cases, the thawed plants managed to survive and grow, although they took longer to recover than the control moss that was dehydrated but not frozen. In addition, the moss that was first dehydrated before being placed in simulated cold conditions recovered faster than the plants that were not dehydrated.

The moss also survived radiation that would kill most plants. Even stranger is that doses of 500 grays helped the plant grow (a dose of 50 Gy is generally lethal to humans).

In addition to testing the moss’ resilience to one factor at a time, the team placed the moss in simulated Mars conditions — consisting of air composed of 95 percent carbon dioxide, subzero temperatures as low as -76 F (-60 C), low atmospheric pressure and high levels of ultraviolet radiation — for up to a week. Plants that had been dehydrated before testing fully regenerated within 30 days, while even those that hadn’t been treated beforehand recovered, albeit more slowly.

Moss on Mars

S. caninervis It has proven to be extremely resilient in a combination of conditions found on Mars. These plants could be used in future terraforming attempts. Credit: Li, Xiaoshuang et al, 2024

Overall, the researchers hope that moss could one day contribute to the terraforming of Mars for future human habitation through its ability to produce oxygen, improve soil quality and sequester carbon. “While there is still a long way to go to create self-sustaining habitats on other planets, we demonstrated the great potential of moss.” S. caninervis “As a pioneer plant for growth on Mars,” the researchers write in their study. “Looking ahead, we hope that this promising moss can be brought to Mars or the Moon to further test the possibility of plant colonization and growth in outer space.”

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