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Species of Desert Moss Could Be Key to Terraforming Mars for Human Habitation: Study

A desert moss, Syntrichia Caninervis, may help humans alter the environment of Mars and make it livable for humans.
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Photo by RDNE Stock project
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Photo by RDNE Stock project

New research claims that a kind of desert moss could be a viable option to grow on Mars due to its ability to withstand extreme conditions present on the red planet. The study showcases that the desert moss can be used to terraform the ecosystem of Mars, Space reported. 

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Kindel Media
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Kindel Media

Terraforming occurs when changes are introduced in a place to create an ecosystem on a large scale, which in turn destroys the existing ecosystem of the place, Space reported.

Chinese researchers identified Syntrichia caninervis (S. caninervis), a moss found in extreme desert environments from Tibet to Antarctica, as a pioneer plant that can be used to establish a livable environment for humans on Mars.

Before the study, several other research projects helped identify the terraforming abilities of algae and lichens, Space reported.

The researchers of this particular study believe that Syntrichia caninervis has unique features that make it perfect for the role of terraforming, Space reported. 

"However, plants such as mosses offer key benefits for terraforming, including stress tolerance, a high capacity for photoautotrophic growth, and the potential to produce substantial amounts of biomass under challenging conditions," the new study's team wrote in the paper.


The team's researchers put Syntrichia caninervis through extreme conditions to come to this conclusion, The Guardian reported.

The desert moss was subjected to extreme dehydration but still managed to completely recover. For five years, the plant was kept at −80 degrees Celsius and was still able to regrow after its return to normal conditions.

"Unique morphological features of S. caninervis, such as twisted leaves, conserve water by minimizing surface area and reducing transpiration, and the awns provide efficient photoprotection from intense UV radiation, extreme temperatures, and water loss," wrote the team, Space reported. "Meanwhile, the cell wall, cell membrane, and chloroplast and its membrane structure remain intact even in a completely dehydrated state."

Experts put the moss under pressures, temperatures, gases, and UV radiation similar to those present on Mars, The Guardian reported. The researchers also found that despite being in such extreme conditions, the moss was able to bounce back. They did note that the plants, that were dried up before exposure to Mars-like conditions, fared better in the experiment.

“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.

Representative image: Tree Roots Covered With Moss | Photo by Will | Pexels
Representative image: Tree Roots Covered With Moss | Photo by Will | Pexels

Professor Stuart McDaniel, an expert on moss at the University of Florida, believes the introduction of moss in the Mars environment can make space for other plants on the planet, The Guardian reported.

“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,” McDaniel said, according to the Guardian.

Despite the promising findings, McDaniel does believe that more work and preparation need to happen before sending moss to Mars. “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,” he said.

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