We could lay out Mars with desert moss – but does that mean we should?

Desert moss could be the key to terraforming Mars, according to a recent study published by Chinese scientists.

Because of its extraordinary resilience, Syntrichia caninervis (S. caninervis), a moss found in extreme desert environments from Tibet to Antarctica, has been touted as a “pioneer plant” for establishing a livable environment. Mars. Basically, scientists believe that this plant could enrich the planet’s rocky surface to enable the growth of other plants.

A few studies have explored other possibilities associated with these land-forming seeds, such as algae and lichens. “However, moss-like plants offer important advantages for terraforming, including stress tolerance, a high capacity for photoautotrophic growth, and the ability to produce significant amounts of biomass under challenging conditions,” the team wrote new studies in the paper.

Mosses are believed to be the first true land plants World. Therefore, they developed a tolerance to extreme stress that allowed them to live in a very harsh environment on earth.

But how extreme are we talking?

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The moss trials

The scientists subjected whole S. caninervis plants to conditions typically found on Mars: high doses of gamma radiation, low oxygen, extreme cold and drought. They report that the plants could withstand a combination of these conditions, even losing more than 98% of their water content and still bouncing back within seconds – “drying without death” is the term used. and grow new branches after being stored in a freezer at −80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit) for five years or in liquid nitrogen (-195.8 degrees C; -320.44 degrees F) for one month.

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

Under stress, S. Caninervis enters a state of “selective metabolic rest,” conserving key metabolites—products of cellular metabolic pathways—required for its rapid resurrection. “For example, S. caninervis plants maintain high levels of sucrose and maltose after stress; these sugars act as osmotic agents and protectors that help preserve and stabilize cellular architecture,” the scientists wrote. “In turn, the sugars provide the energy needed for quick recovery upon relief from stressful conditions.”

Yellow brown moss covers part of a white rock.  In the background, more white rock, but no moss.

Yellow brown moss covers part of a white rock. In the background, more white rock, but no moss.

Stress also activates genes that encode for photoprotective proteins and enzymes that help detect harmful reactive oxygen species generated under radiation. “The multi-layered tolerance [provides] protection under stressful conditions and enables rapid cell repair and recovery of physiological activity when suitable conditions arise,” the team said.

The scientists continue with these findings and lay the groundwork for building sustainable human habitats beyond Earth. Whether this statement is an exaggeration will depend on future experiments – and it may not even be possible within our lifetime – but one important element missing from the discussion is not the possibility of science but the ethics behind it.

Do people belong on Mars?

This concept of setting up another planet is not new and has its roots in science fiction. And, while the concept has been romanticized and played out in the media recently, there are serious concerns about the extraterrestrial scale social consequences of completely transforming an entire planet for human occupation. .

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– Could we really map out Mars?

— Can We Terraform Mars Like Earth? No Time Soon, Study Suggests

— Bad News to Prepare: Mars’ Atmosphere is Lost in Space

In his essay entitled The The Thorny Ethics of Planetary Engineering, for example, astrophysicist and NASA researcher Erika Nesvold outlines the dilemma clearly: “The goal of terraforming is to deliberately create an entire ecosystem on a global scale, which would destroy any existing ecosystem,” she writes. “Terraforming technology may succeed even before we definitively determine whether there is extraterrestrial life on the planet or moon we hope to transform.

“But we will probably find evidence of microbial life already existing on a planet like Mars,” she continued. “Should Mars be disqualified as a target for terraforming? Should we avoid settling on Mars at all?”

The study was published on July 1 in The Innovation magazine.

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