Microscopic Mojave Desert plants growing on the underside of translucent quartz pebbles can endure both chilly and near-boiling temperatures, scavenge nitrogen from the air, and utilize the equivalent of nighttime moonlight levels for photosynthesis, a new study reports. The plants, which receive enough light through the pebbles to support photosynthesis, could offer a model for how plants first colonized land, as well as how they might have evolved on Mars, said the scientists who performed the study.
"Here you have a really bizarre habitat," said William Schlesinger, dean of Duke Universitys Nicholas School of the Environment and principal author of a paper on the study that appears in the December, 2003 issue of the research journal Ecology, which was just published. "When I first went to the site in 1978 I thought: Thats weird, how do these plants photosynthesize? Then it dawned on me that they photosynthesized on the light coming through the rocks."
Years after he first noticed the primitive plants -- mostly species of blue-green algae -- growing under every quartz pebble he turned over at the site in Californias Joshua Tree National Park, Schlesinger assembled a scientific team to investigate the phenomenon. He said what the scientists learned suggests a possible way that land plants established their first toehold in the harsh conditions of the early Earth: by staying under cover.
Monte Basgall | EurekAlert!
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