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.

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Watch a Tree Release a Massive "Pollen Bomb" Into the Air
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In case your itchy, watery eyes hadn't already tipped you off, spring is in the air. Some trees release up to a billion pollen grains apiece each year, and instead of turning into baby trees, many of those spores end up in the noses of allergy sufferers. For a visual of just how much pollen is being released into our backyards, check out the video below spotted by Gothamist.

This footage was captured by Millville, New Jersey resident Jennifer Henderson while her husband was clearing away brush with a backhoe. He noticed one tree was blanketed in pollen, and decided to bump into it to see what would happen. The result was an explosion of plant matter dramatic enough to make you sniffle just by looking at it.

"Pollen bombs" occur when the weather starts to warm up after a prolonged winter, prompting trees and grasses to suddenly release a high concentration of pollen in a short time span. Wind, temperature, and humidity levels all determine the air's pollen count for any given day, but allergy season settles down around May.

After determining that your congestion is the result of allergies and not a head cold, there are a few steps you can take to stave off symptoms before they appear. Keep track of your area's pollen report throughout the week, and treat yourself with antihistamines or nasal spray on days when you know it will be particularly bad outside. You can also keep your home a pollen-free zone by closing all the windows and investing in an air purifier. Check out our full list of seasonal allergy-fighting tips here.

[h/t Gothamist]

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Why Some Trees in Norway Are Missing Their Rings
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Dendrochronologists are experts at reading tree rings. They can learn a great deal of information—including past climate in an area and the age of the tree—by taking a tree core sample and reading between the lines (literally).

But as the BBC reports, one climate researcher was stumped when she discovered that many trees in the Norwegian village of Kåfjord were missing their rings. Extreme weather and invasive insects can cause some degree of damage to trees, but not enough to render them ringless.

Claudia Hartl, from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, knew that these trees dated back to 1945, but that alone wasn't enough information. Two other clues that helped Hartl and her colleagues solve the mystery were location and history. During World War II, Nazi soldiers moored the Tirpitz—the largest battleship of Hitler's navy—off the waters of Kåfjord to intercept vessels carrying Allied supplies to the Soviet Union. The Germans released an artificial smoke containing chlorosulphuric acid to conceal the ship's location, and this is believed to be the root of the trees' problem.

Artificial smoke could have damaged the needles of the trees, halting the photosynthesis process and stunting the trees' growth, researchers found. It takes time for the trees to recover, but it is possible. One tree saw no growth at all from 1945 to 1954, but after 30 years its growth had returned to normal. Hartl presented the findings at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week [PDF].

"I think it's really interesting that the effects of one engagement are still evident in the forests of northern Norway more than 70 years later,” Hartl told BBC News. She believes her "warfare dendrochronology" will unearth similar findings elsewhere in the world.

[h/t BBC News]

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