Could We Grow Moss on Mars?

Last month we learned there was water on Mars. But even before that news broke, a team of young scientists had begun cultivating would-be Martian moss.

The student researchers from the University of Copenhagen call themselves Team SpaceMoss, and their goal is to create moss that will both make medicine and survive the harsh conditions on Mars.

This is far less outlandish than it sounds. The moss species Physcomitrella patens is a favorite of genetic engineers because the structure of the moss's DNA is especially susceptible to tinkering. By swapping the moss's genes with those that produce a desirable compound or trait, they can manufacture all kinds of chemicals. The moss is low maintenance, environmentally friendly, and doesn't take up much room.

Moss growing in bioreactors. Image Credit: Eva Decker, Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 1.0

Companies are already using moss manufacturing to produce medicines for skin cancer and an eye condition called age-related macular degeneration, as well as perfumes and artificial sweeteners.

Inspired by these advances, Team SpaceMoss decided to shoot for the Moon (or Mars, anyway). Their project involved the cultivation of two separate P. patens strains: one that could withstand the red planet’s blistering cold weather, and one that could make medicine.

The spruce budworm is a hardy pest that survives freezing temperatures by producing its own natural antifreeze. The students borrowed the budworm’s antifreeze-producing gene and spliced it into a crop of P. patens. The initial results were promising; the transgenic Mars moss thrived in a freezer set to -20°C, outliving all its Earthbound peers. But the average temperature on Mars is about -55°C, and even the antifreeze genes couldn’t keep the space moss alive in that punishing cold.

In phase two of their project, Team SpaceMoss will attempt to get their moss to make medicine. They’re planning to splice in a gene that should allow the moss to make resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in red wine. 

So the moss isn’t space ready quite yet. Fortunately, it’s going to be quite a while before we’re ready to colonize Mars.

Palm Trees in Canada? It Could Happen, Thanks to Climate Change

Human-caused global warming has the potential to transform coastlines, weather patterns, and entire populations. According to a new study published in Scientific Reports, the creep of palm trees into higher latitudes could be another sign that our planet is changing. If our climate continues to warm, the tropical flora could soon be spotted as far north as Canada.

In the new study, reported by Earther, researchers from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and two Canadian institutions looked at the temperature tolerances of palm species best suited for chillier weather. Many varieties don't need a year-round tropical climate to thrive: As long as the average temperature for the coldest month of the year for the region is above 36°F, some palms can grow in northern latitudes. This is why you can see palm trees in Greenville, North Carolina, where average temperatures for January fall above 36°F, but not Washington D.C., where average January temperatures tend to dip below that number.

But that could soon change. As is the case with most northern states, average temperatures in D.C. are rising and winters are getting milder, which means it's shaping up to be an inviting habitat for palm trees. Not all palm species tolerate the same climatic conditions, and the effects of the species' competition with native and non-native plants in more northerly regions remains to be seen. But if the palms do migrate that far north in the coming years, the Northeast, Northwest, and even parts of Canada could be next.

A future of palm trees in Canada isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Winters in these areas are already warm enough for people to plant palm trees in their gardens. In a controlled environment, these trees can flower and spread fruit, but average temperatures will need to climb a little higher before palm seedlings can survive in the wild.

[h/t Earther]

Big Questions
What Are Those Tiny Spots on Apples?

The little pinprick spots on apples, pears, and potatoes are called lenticels (LEN-tih-sells), and they’re very important.

Plants need a constant stream of fresh air, just like people, and that “fresh air” means carbon dioxide. Flowers, trees, and fruit all take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. But unlike people, plants don’t have nostrils.

That's where a plant's lenticels come in. Each little speck is an opening in the fruit or tuber’s skin or the tree’s bark. Carbon dioxide goes in, and oxygen comes out. Through these minuscule snorkels, a plant is able to “breathe.”

Like any opening, lenticels are vulnerable to infection and sickness. In an apple disease called lenticel breakdown, a nutrient deficiency causes the apples’ spots to darken and turn into brown pits. This doesn’t hurt the inside of the fruit, but it does make the apple look pretty unattractive. In the equally appealing “lenticel blotch pit,” the skin around the apple’s lenticels gets patchy and dark, like a weird rash. 

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