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The Wet World of Moss

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Beautiful and useful, moss is a remarkable plant. During World War I, moss was used to dress wounds in part because the plant absorbed fluids better than cotton. In recent years, scientists have discovered new species of microbes living in mosses, some of which play important roles in the Earth’s energy cycles.

A thick carpet of moss (Sphagnum cuspidatum) in the Jura Mountains, Switzerland.

Some species of moss grow in places where few other organisms live. For instance, Sphagnum mosses make their home in boggy waters that are acidic and without many nutrients.

Even though they lack roots and vascular systems for transporting water, these mosses can hold twenty times their weight in water. Rainwater is stored efficiently inside cells and between stems and leaves, collecting over time.

The images below feature microscopic views of moss leaves.

The large cells in this image are called “hyaline” cells, which store water.

The white spots in this image are pores in leaf cells, through which water passes. The leaf, from a “peat core,” may be centuries or millennia old.

The oval in the center is an amoeba (Amphitrema flavum) living in a Sphagnum leaf.

For more about Sphagnum mosses click here.

All images copyright Edward Mitchell.

— Birgit Reinert

Dedysh, S.N. et al. Methylocella tundrae sp. nov., a novel methanotrophic bacterium from acidic tundra peatlands. Int J Syst Evol Microbiol 54 (Pt 1), 151-156 (January 2004).
Dedysh, S.N. et al. Isolation of acidophilic methane-oxidizing bacteria from northern peat wetlands. Science 282, 281-284 (October 9, 1998).

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