Turn the red planet green? Chinese Study Reveals Algae’s Potential – China.org.cn

Li Xiaoshuang (L), a researcher at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, discusses the unusual resilience of Syntrichia caninervis in extreme environments with his student in Urumqi, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 5, 20. [Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography under the Chinese Academy of Sciences/Handout via Xinhua]

A futuristic study conducted by Chinese scientists has shed light on the possibility of using algae to transform the barren red landscape of Mars into a green environment.

Scientists have recently identified Syntrichia caninervis, a desert alga that thrives in various extreme environments on Earth, as a promising precursor plant for colonizing extraterrestrial environments.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG), the National Space Science Center and the Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was recently published in the journal The Innovation.

Syntrichia caninervis is a globally distributed genus of algae that thrives in harsh deserts, montanes, and subtropical regions. It is part of the biological soil crust.

Using samples from the Gurbangut Desert in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one of the most concentrated distributions of Syntrichia caninervis, the researchers evaluated the alga’s extraordinary resilience to extreme drought, extreme low temperatures, and extreme temperatures. The environment combines many of these stressors.

They found that the moss has remarkable drought tolerance. After losing more than 98 percent of its cellular water content, photosynthetic and physiological functions can be restored within seconds after rehydration.

„We subjected this algae to air-drying in the laboratory. Plants appeared green when saturated with water, turned dark green, then turned black as water was gradually lost, and turned green again two seconds after rehydration,” said Li Xiaoshuang, a researcher at XIEG.

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According to Li, the plant has special powers of „drying without dying” and „freezing without dying”.

„We exposed intact plants to minus 80 degrees Celsius in a high-low-temperature freezer and minus 196 degrees Celsius in a liquid nitrogen storage tank for 30 days. The plants survived and regenerated new branches after these low-temperature treatments,” Li said.

Furthermore, the researcher found that algae can survive super-intense gamma radiation exposure that kills most plants and maintain vitality in simulated Martian conditions.

„Using the CAS Planetary Atmospheric Simulation Facility, we simulated Martian conditions that include air with 95 percent carbon dioxide, temperatures fluctuating from minus 60 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees Celsius, high levels of ultraviolet radiation, and low atmospheric pressure,” added Zhang Dayuan, researcher at XIEG. .

Mars is thought to be a future planet to be colonized by humans. However, no life has been found on Mars to date. Therefore, creating Earth-like conditions suitable for human life on Mars may require the introduction of organisms from Earth, a process scientists call terraforming.

„Terraforming will require the selection of suitable organisms from Earth or the engineering of novel organisms that can thrive in challenging extraterrestrial conditions,” Zhang said.

To date, only a few studies have focused on testing the ability of organisms to withstand the extreme environments of space or Mars. Those studies have focused primarily on microorganisms, algae, and lichens.

„Our study shows that Syntrichia caninervis is one of the toughest organisms on Earth,” Li said.

„This work provides fundamental insights into the multi-stress tolerance of the desert alga Syntrichia caninervis, which lays the foundation for creating biologically sustainable human habitats beyond Earth,” Li added.

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According to Li, the research is still ongoing. These include extending the treatment period to further explore the alga’s stress tolerance limits, uncovering „unkillable” mechanisms, and testing its effectiveness in simulated Martian soil.

„In the future, we plan to conduct space flight tests that expose space conditions,” Zhang added. „We’re excited to see what a terrestrial Mars looks like.”

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