Xinjiang scientists discover plant with ability to survive on Mars

Photo: Courtesy of Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Photo: Courtesy of Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

In an unprecedented discovery, researchers at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered a species of desert moss called Syntrichia caninervis that has the ability to survive the extreme conditions of Mars.

The Global Times learned from the institute that during the third Xinjiang scientific expedition, the research team focused on studying desert moss and found that it not only challenged people's understanding of organisms' tolerance to extreme environments but also demonstrated the ability to survive and regenerate in simulated Martian conditions.

Supported by the Xinjiang Scientific Expedition Project, researchers Li Xiaoshuang, Zhang Daoyuan and Zhang Yuanming of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, and Kuang Tingyun, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, focused on studying Syntrichia caninervis, a “pioneer species” in the extreme desert environment, the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography reported in an article sent to the Global Times on Sunday.

Through scientific experiments, he systematically proved that moss can tolerate more than 98 percent cell dehydration, survive at temperatures as low as -196°C without dying, withstand more than 5,000 gigawatts of gamma radiation without being destroyed, and quickly recover, turn green, and resume growth, showing extraordinary resilience.

These findings push the boundaries of human knowledge regarding the tolerance of organisms to extreme environments.

In addition, the research showed that under simulated Martian conditions with many adversities, Syntrichia caninervis can still survive and regenerate when returned to suitable conditions. This is the first report of higher plants surviving under simulated Martian conditions.

The research team also identified unique features of Syntrichia caninervis. Its overlapping leaves reduce water evaporation, while the white tips of the leaves reflect intense sunlight. Additionally, the innovative “top-down” water absorption mode of the white tips efficiently collects and transports water from the atmosphere. In addition, the moss can enter a selective metabolic dormancy state in adverse environments and provide the energy needed for rapid recovery when the environment around it improves.

Based on the extreme environmental tolerance of Syntrichia caninervis, the research team plans to conduct experiments on spacecraft to monitor the species' survival response and adaptation abilities under microgravity and various ionizing radiation adversities. They aim to uncover the physiological and molecular basis of the moss and explore the key life tolerance regulatory mechanisms, laying the foundation for future applications of Syntrichia caninervis in outer space colonization.

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