The Rugged Desert Moss Best Equipped to Survive on Mars

For decades, we have seen Mars as a desolate landscape devoid of any signs of life. Attempt to identify ways of growing plants and food on the red planet have focussed on greenhouse like structures to enable plants to survive, that is, until now! A desert moss called ‘Syntrichia caninervis’ has been identified and it can grown in extreme environments like Antarctica and the Mojave Desert. A new study revealed the moss can survive Mars-like environments too including low temperatures, high levels of radiation and drought. 

Mars has often be referred to as the “Red Planet” for its distinct red hue. It is the fourth planet from the Sun and to some extent resembles the Earth. Polar ice caps, seasonal weather patterns, extinct volcanoes, ancient riverbeds and flood plains are among the many surface features and. This cold world has fascinated us for centuries and its thin atmosphere, mostly made up of carbon dioxide, has been subjected to lots of studies. It has been thought for many years that it experiences some of the harshest weather conditions, including planet-wide dust storms but the recent study suggests there may just be a plant on Earth capable of surviving these conditions. 

Mars, Credit NASA

Exploring and colonising planets like Mars can enhance human sustainability. Since no life forms have been found on Mars, introducing Earth organisms might be necessary for creating suitable conditions for human life in a process known as terraforming. This will involve selecting or engineering plants that can thrive in the harsh environments of an alien world. Few studies have tested organisms’ ability to withstand extreme environments of space or Mars, focusing mainly on microorganisms, algae, and lichens. However until recently, studies including mosses and whole plants have been lacking.

There have been many long term plans and even whimsical ideas to establish settlements on Mars. Pivotal to the success is the establishment of adapted crops that can grow in controlled, synthetic environments. However, to develop such a plant requires significant progress and development before plants are capable of growing in the soils and harsh conditions. In the report by lead author Xiaoshuang Li and team the incredible resilience of a moss called Syntrichia caninervis (S. caninervis) to survive a Mars-like environment even after having lost more than 98% of its water content. 

Studies into the resilience of the plants have shown they can withstand  extremely low  temperatures and regenerate even after being stored in a freezer at -80°C for five years or in liquid nitrogen for one month. S. caninervis also demonstrates high resistance to gamma radiation and can survive in simulated Martian conditions. 

The study concluded that S. caninervis is among the most stress-tolerant organisms known. It shows how it is a real potential species for the colonisation of alien worlds like Mars. The resilience to extreme conditions such as desiccation, low temperatures, and high radiation makes it an ideal for future terraforming efforts. It helps to understand the unique properties of this moss (in particular) and how it can form a foundational layer for biologically sustainable human habitats in space.

Source : The extremotolerant desert moss Syntrichia caninervis is a promising pioneer plant for colonizing extraterrestrial environments

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