Takakia, an extraordinary moss genus that has persisted for millions of years in high-altitude environments, has divulged its secrets to an international consortium of scientists. This remarkable organism has mastered the art of surviving frost, perilous UV radiation, and other adverse conditions through an evolutionary journey spanning eons. Alarming findings indicate that Takakia’s habitat has undergone drastic transformations due to climate change within just a few brief years.
From afar, Takakia might resemble a layer of moss or green algae adorning rocky surfaces. However, closer examination would unveil delicate turf about a centimeter in length, adorned with short, finger-like leaves.
Takakia belongs to a genus with only two species, both of which exclusively inhabit the Tibetan Plateau. In a peer-reviewed publication in the journal Cell, researchers expound upon the genetic traits that have shielded this moss from its harsh surroundings.
Enduring heavy layers of snow for eight months annually, the Tibetan Plateau’s Takakia species endure an additional four months of exposure to extraordinarily intense UV radiation. Over the course of 65 million years, Takakia has evolved attributes enabling it to endure these conditions. The plateau itself is roughly that age, having emerged due to continental drift. Gradually, across millennia, the moss’s habitat grew increasingly severe.
Ralf Reski, co-author of the article, remarks, “These geological time records help us trace the gradual adaptation to high-altitude life in the Takakia genome. Despite the rapid evolution of the Takakia genome, its morphology has remained largely unchanged for over 165 million years. This renders Takakia a true living fossil. The contrast between its unchanging form and rapidly evolving genome poses a scientific conundrum for evolutionary biologists.”
Takakia has captured the fascination of researchers, particularly at the University of Freiburg, where Reski is based. This allure emanates from its amalgamation of features present in mosses, liverworts, and green algae. Co-author Yikun He from Capital Normal University in China asserts that the study substantiates Takakia’s status as a moss that diverged from other mosses 390 million years ago, not long after the emergence of the first land plants.
Since 2010, scientists have recorded an alarming average temperature increase of nearly half a degree Celsius per year in the region. Concurrently, the glacier proximate to the sample sites has retreated by almost 50 meters each year.