‘Extremotolerant’ Moss Could Grow on Mars

Scientists have discovered a species of moss that lives in in Antarctica and the Mojave Desert but is so tough and resilient that it could grow on Mars. 

Scientists tested samples of Syntichia caninervis in a series of hostile conditions. The moss survived storage in -80°C freezers for over three years, was submerged in liquid nitrogen at a frosty -196°C for weeks, and exposed to the level of gamma radiation experienced on Mars. It survived with flying colors, even though its normal habitat, while challenging, was hardly so extreme.

At this point, the researchers put it into an ecosystem that mimicked that of Mars. Atmospheric pressure, UV radiation, and low oxygen all mirrored those on the Red Planet. Almost all the moss, 98% of it, survived and revived when returned to a more hospitable environment.

“Our study shows that the environmental resilience of Syntrichia caninervis is superior to that of some of the highly stress-tolerant microorganisms,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The ability of the moss to survive stressful conditions is not altogether shocking. Mosses are thought to be the first complex organism to colonize Earth. Our primitive planet would have forced the moss to adapt to radically changing temperatures, extreme UV radiation, and drought. It seems this species retained such abilities through millions of years of evolution.

When it experiences extreme stress, the plant enters “selective metabolic dormancy.” This means that it stores the crucial nutrients and other substances it needs to recover.

This discovery could help make Mars suitable for human habitation. There are two obvious steps to a successful Martian colony: getting there without injury and surviving after landing. This means that humans have to cultivate their own food.

Syntichia caninervis could be the starting point. The moss would enhance the water-holding ability and structural stability of the soil. It would also increase the soil’s nutritional value through nitrogen and carbon fixation. This humus could make growing crops possible.

“Although there is still a long way to go…we demonstrated the great potential of S. caninervis as a pioneer plant for Mars,” said the researchers.

The next step is sending samples to the moon and Mars to see if the moss can survive real-world testing.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.