Could We Grow Moss on Mars?

Student scientists have dreamed up a space moss to use in astronaut medicine.

Kate Horowitz
12 . 10 . 15

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 colonise Mars.