Scientists Discover Desert Moss That ‘Could Survive On Mars’

Scientists in China stated that they have discovered a moss that would be able to withstand conditions on the planet Mars. The moss itself is called Syntrichia caninervis, and was found in regions of Antarctica and the Mojave desert. 

The scientists involved in this feat recently published the information in the journal The Innovation. They wrote that the moss could withstand conditions such as drought, high levels of radiation, and extreme cold temperatures. 

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The team stated that this work is the first to look at how the plant could potentially survive, and potentially be grown, on the planet’s surface. 

​​“The unique insights obtained in our study lay the foundation for outer space colonization using naturally selected plants adapted to extreme stress conditions,” the team wrote.

“Cultivating terrestrial plants is an important part of any long-term space mission because plants efficiently turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates – essentially the air and food that humans need to survive. Desert moss is not edible, but it could provide other important services in space,” said Professor Stuart McDaniel, an expert on moss at the University of Florida who was not involved in the study. 

The moss itself could also work to transform rocky surfaces that would allow other plants to grow on Mars. 

They wrote that the desert moss was able to quickly recover from almost complete dehydration, and was able to regenerate in normal growth conditions after spending nearly five years at -112 degrees Fahrenheit, and 30 days at -320.8 degrees Fahrenheit. It also could regenerate after exposure to gamma rays. 

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The team wrote that they created a set-up that has similar pressures, gases, temperatures, and UV radiation levels to Mars.  

“Looking to the future, we expect that this promising moss could be brought to Mars or the moon to further test the possibility of plant colonization and growth in outer space,” the researchers wrote. 

“This paper is exciting because it shows that desert moss survives short exposures to some of the stresses that are likely to be found on a trip to Mars, including very high levels of radiation, very cold temperatures, and very low oxygen levels,” Professor McDaniel said. 

“These experiments represent an important first step, but they do not show that the moss could be a significant source of oxygen under Martian conditions, nor do they show that the desert moss could reproduce and proliferate in the Martian context.”

Dr Agata Zupanska, of the SETI Institute, agreed that the study’s findings are exciting, however, more research is needed before we can get to a place of growing plants on Mars. 

“In my opinion, we are getting close to growing plants in extraterrestrial greenhouses, and moss certainly has a place in those. Implying that moss, or any other pioneering species, is ready to terraform Mars, or any other outer planet, is an exaggeration,” she said. 

“This extremotolerant moss could be a promising pioneer plant for Mars colonization. We have a long way to go, but this lowly desert moss offers hope for making small portions of Mars habitable for humankind in the future,” said Professor Edward Guinan of Villanova University.