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What plants might take root on Mars?

written by Alex Moore on September 04, 2000 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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A beach on Mars.
A beach on Mars.
Credit: Unknown
All future life on Mars will come from Earth. This is an obstacle that can never be overcome. Of course organisms will be altered to be able to withstand conditions on Mars, but they will always be of Terran descent. Which organisms we chose as the base of new Martian life will determine how the planet is terraformed in the future.

Since this topic has not been discussed thoroughly, it is merely a matter of opinion. I believe that we should first bring small plants and their rightful organisms. For instance, the settlers in Kim Stanley Robinson's, Red Mars brought bamboo to Mars. They had to provide the bamboo with terran soil, rich with 90% organic material. Later in the mission bamboo served as a building material for permanent shelters on the planet.

Of course, the bamboo was never grown outside the shelters. This is what we are trying to accomplish. We must find a suitable plant and adapt it for sub-freezing temperatures, low gravity, low air pressure, and high radiation exposure. One good point, and perhaps the only one for plant life on Mars, would be the high carbon dioxide levels present. Of course, plants thrive on CO2, and therefore will have no trouble in that respect. In fact, this will benefit humans greatly, since a drop in CO2 means more oxygen for animals.

So what plants should we take? One species of lichen, called Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina), can be found in Arctic regions on Earth. It is the chief food of several larger animal species, including reindeer and moose. Although the lichen would never survive on Mars, it could be easily changed. Other species of lichen that reproduce quickly or can withstand radiation would be combined genetically with the Reindeer Moss to create a "super lichen" capable of thriving on Mars.

The present state of Mars is dead as it has been for millions of years. Anything introduced to this environment would begin at a runaway reproduction rate that would last until the entire planet were covered by it. With no natural predators, a well designed lichen would overtake everything.

In the days of the early explorers, rats came along on the high seas as stowaways. Wherever the ship landed, the rats would also. This is true with many animals, whether purposely or by accident. Without natural enemies, the stowaways were free to reproduce and overtake entire islands.

Imagine Mars as a large island. Suddenly a species of lichen arrives that has been adapted for its harsh existence on the island. The circumstances would be disastrous. So we must provide the lichen with a suicide gene, limiting each lichen from reproducing more than a set number of times. This same technology is already initiated in controlled bacterial growth laboratories.

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