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Endurance of plants under quartz rocks possible model for life on early Earth, Mars

DURHAM, N.C. -- 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 University's 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: 'That's 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 California's 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.

Such habitats may also be "prime locations to search for extraterrestrial life" on other planets, wrote Schlesinger and his other team members in their paper. Other authors include Schlesinger's technician Jeffrey Pippen and Duke graduate students Matthew Wallenstein and Kirsten Hofmockel; also Bruce Mahall of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Debra Klepeis, Mahall's graduate student.

Under Schlesinger's direction, Pippen counted 295 whitish, light transmitting quartz pebbles commingled with a much larger numbe
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Contact: Monte Basgall
monte.basgall@duke.edu
919-681-8057
Duke University
5-Jan-2004


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