In the cold cliffs of the Tibetan Plateau, an amazing moss called takakia has caught the attention of scientists around the world. This ancient moss, which has survived for 390 million years, has become a symbol of resilience and adaptation in the face of climate change. A team of researchers embarked on a ten-year journey to unravel the mysteries of this unusual species, traversing difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions to reach its elusive habitat.
Studying the takakia proved to be a daunting task. Unlike common moss, takakia grows slowly and is found only in small patches on the Tibetan Plateau, Japan and the United States. In the Himalayas, its habitat reaches an altitude of 4,000 meters, making it inaccessible to most researchers. Despite the challenges, the team undertook 18 expeditions, collecting samples and scrutinizing the moss’s habitat.
“We set out to describe and analyze a living fossil,” says Ralf Reski, a plant biotechnologist at the University of Freiburg, Germany. The team was determined to unlock the secrets hidden in Takakia’s genetic structure and understand its evolutionary path.
Traveling to the takakia habitat is not for the faint of heart. Expedition co-leader Ruoyang Hu of Capital Normal University (China) describes the landscape as a place where you can experience four seasons in one day. At the foot of the mountain it is sunny and clear, while halfway up the mountain is shrouded in perpetual fine rain that feels like walking through clouds. Finally, at the top, snow covers everything and the temperature drops dramatically.
Accessibility was a significant problem: only half of the route was passable by motorized vehicles. The rest of the way, the explorers had to trek on foot, testing their physical endurance. Expedition leader Xuedong Li recalls the dangers they faced: during the research, three students fell victim to altitude sickness. Thanks to the competence of the Tibetan guides, the students were promptly transferred to a lower altitude for medical care.
Takakia predates the formation of the Himalayas by 100 million years. This ancient moss has surprisingly adapted to its ever-changing habitat, piquing the curiosity of scientists. “The idea was to delve as deeply as possible into the history of the first land plants and see what they can tell us about evolution,” Reski reflects. The team found that Takakia has a genome with an exceptionally high number of rapidly evolving genes, making it very active at the genetic level.
In addition, the researchers discovered Takakia’s unique ability to repair damaged DNA and recover from UV radiation. Yikun He, a plant biologist, explains that these unusual abilities are due to the moss being exposed to heavy snow for eight months of the year and intense UV radiation during the four-month light period. Over time, the takakia has developed a strong network structure that allows it to withstand harsh snowstorms.
By sequencing the takakia genome, the team also resolved a long-standing debate about its classification. “People wondered: is it really a moss? Or is it something like an algae or a liverwort? But our work shows that it is a moss,” explains Resckey. ‘This discovery opens new avenues for studying the relationship between genetic variation and static morphology in evolutionary biology.”
In addition to genetic and morphological studies, the scientists looked at the takakia’s habitat. They observed firsthand the effects of melting glaciers, a warming climate, and increased ultraviolet radiation. In laboratory experiments, they found that even plants adapted to harsh conditions die under current levels of ultraviolet radiation. This finding underscores the urgent need for further research on the effects of climate change on fragile ecosystems.
Takakia’s resilience serves as a powerful reminder of nature’s ability to adapt and survive. Its ancient lineage and remarkable genetic adaptations provide valuable insight into the evolution of land plants. As climate change continues to threaten fragile ecosystems around the world, understanding the secrets of species like takakia becomes increasingly important.