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Good news for interplanetary Reindeer: researchers in the Netherlands have discovered that Lichens can survive in the harsh environment of space. This raises the possibility that Lichen could survive on the surface of Mars, the European Space Agency says, and might also widen the focus of exobiology research beyond the realm of bacteria.

Lichen, up close and personal. Image: L. Sancho

Two different species of Lichen were sent into orbit on the Foton-M2 mission back in May this year (2005). The M2 capsule housed some 39 experiments in total, ranging from exobiology to fluid physics and materials science.

The lichens, were housed in the "biopan" section of the capsule, located on the outer shell of the craft. Once in orbit, this section opens to expose the contents to the full hostility of the vacuum and high radiation levels present in space. After just over 14 and a half days in orbit, the lid was closed and the capsule returned to Earth.

On their return, the space-faring lichens were all still alive, and their ability to photosynthesise had not diminished.

Lichens are known for their ability to survive in extreme environments, but it is still impressive that such a complex organism could survive in quite such brutal conditions.

In evolutionary terms, lichens are far more advanced organisms than bacteria. They are composed of millions of algae cells and fungal cells which have a symbiotic relationship. The algae provide the fungus with food, while the fungus provides the algae with a nice place to live. ®

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