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Desert Moss Holds Prospects for Mars Colonization, Scientists discover

A pioneering study by Chinese scientists on a hardy desert moss named Syntrichia caninervis, reveals that it may be essential to the emergence of life on Mars. This moss has shown an amazing resistance to circumstances similar to those on Mars, such as intense radiation, rigid cold, and dehydration and is often discovered in dry climates like the Mojave Desert and Antarctica.

The study conducted by the team, which includes ecologists Daoyuan Zhang and Yuanming Zhang, and botanist Tingyun Kuang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is the first to investigate the longevity of whole plants under these harsh circumstances. According to their research, Syntrichia caninervis has the potential to be a “promising candidate pioneer plant for colonizing extraterrestrial environments,” which might pave the way for the development of ecologically sound human dwellings outside of Earth. 

The moss was put through an intricate series of research procedures  in order to assess its durability. It was kept for a maximum of five years at −80°C and for a maximum of thirty days at −196°C. The experiment results found that the moss recovered upon defrosting however, the speed was comparatively slower as compared to the control specimens that had been dehydrated. Furthermore, the moss was exposed to gamma radiation at levels of 500 Gy, and surprisingly this practice encouraged development, while this would have been fatal for the majority of plants. 

The researchers also replicated Martian parameters by utilizing the Planetary Atmospheres Simulation Facility of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In this inquiry, the moss was subjected to an environment with low air pressure, intense UV rays, temperatures between −60°C and 20°C, and a climate formed of 95% CO2. After being exposed to these circumstances for a week, dried moss plants recovered 100% of their original mass in a matter of thirty days. The hydrated plants also thrived but with a reduced recovery rate. 

The scientists discovered that, “Although there is still a long way to go to create self-sufficient habitats on other planets, we demonstrated the great potential of S. caninervis as a pioneer plant for growth on Mars”. They seek to examine the prospect of plant invasion and development in space by bringing this moss to either Mars or the Moon.

The possible suggestions of the research have been discussed by subject matter experts. For extended space journeys, Prof. Stuart McDaniel of the University of Florida who did not participate in the study, highlighted the significance of growing plant life on Earth. As he quoted that although desert moss is non consumable, it may have other beneficial uses in space. The SETI Institute’s Dr. Agata Zupanska continued, moss could potentially nourish and alter the rocky material on Mars allowing the growth of more plants. 

Conversely, a few experts have drawn attention to the study’s shortcomings. Wageningen University’s Dr. Wieger Wamelink pointed out that the trials did not employ soil similar to Mars, and that Mars’s temperatures do not frequently reach the freezing point, proving it hard for outdoor plants to survive and develop properly. In spite of these reservations, Villanova University professor Edward Guinan emphasized on the capability of Moss as an initial plant for Mars colonization and declared the work exceptional.

Guinan stated that there is hope someday humans will be able to live in some areas of Mars owing to this tiny sandy moss; however, substantial progress is required in this aspect.

This study was supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Leading Talents in Technological Innovation Program, and The Third Xinjiang Scientific Expedition Program.

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