Desert moss, Syntrichia caninervis, emerges as a promising candidate for Mars colonization due to its exceptional ability to withstand harsh and lethal conditions for most life forms. A new study published in The Innovation reveals this potential. Researchers found that this moss, already known for its remarkable drought tolerance, can also survive extreme conditions including freezing temperatures down to -196°C, high levels of gamma radiation, and simulated Martian environments that combine these stress factors. Notably, prior dehydration appears to enhance the moss’s resilience.

“Our study demonstrates that the environmental resilience of S. caninervis exceeds that of some highly stress-tolerant microorganisms and tardigrades,” said the researchers, including ecologists Daoyuan Zhang and Yuanming Zhang, and botanist Tingyun Kuang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “S. caninervis is a promising pioneer plant for colonizing extraterrestrial environments, laying the foundation for creating biologically sustainable human habitats beyond Earth,” the authors added.

While a few previous studies have tested the ability of microorganisms, algae, lichens, and plant spores to endure the extreme conditions of space or Mars, this is the first to test whole plants. Syntrichia caninervis is a common moss species with a wide global distribution. It thrives in extraordinarily harsh desert environments, such as Tibet, Antarctica, and circumpolar regions, as part of the biological soil crust—a type of widespread and resilient ground cover in arid lands. Recognizing the moss’s capacity to survive extreme conditions, researchers decided to push its limits in laboratory tests.

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