Desert Plant Sucks Water Right Out of the Air

June 8, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Syntrichia caninervis
Photo credit: John Game (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It drinks rain and fog with its leaves.

The desert is a hostile setting for plants. Arid conditions trigger an array of adaptations, such as the extensive root systems of cacti, which maximize the ability of desert plants to suck up and retain precious groundwater.

A species of desert moss called Syntrichia caninervis appears to flourish in even the most extreme arid regions, like the Great Basin in the US and the Gurbantünggüt desert in China, thanks to a unique adaptation.

four-year long study recently published in the journal Nature Plants uncovered how the moss uses its leaves, rather than its roots, to collect water directly from raindrops, fog, and mist.

The key to the plant’s success is the tiny hair, or awn, that extends from the end of each leaf. Each awn is covered in nano- and micro-scale grooves where water molecules from moist air will readily condense. At a larger scale, each awn also features elongated barbs that collect small water droplets. When the droplets become large enough, they fall along the awn toward the leaf.

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"Using these different structures, this plant might get a drink every day, where other desert vegetation gets water maybe once a week," said senior author Tadd Truscott from Utah State University in a press release.

The researchers used high-speed video and an environmental scanning electron microscope to gather visual data on the varying scales of the plant’s efficient water capture and absorption.

Two other plant species are known to possess fog-harvesting abilities, but this dessert moss is the first species for which scientists have elucidated the mechanisms involved.

"There are several exciting angles to this research," said Truscott. "For example, there are processes in industry where we need to extract moisture from a humid environment. It might be possible to create a man-made version of the nano- and micro-scale grooves we see in the awns and use that in a manufacturing setting."

Truscott and his team have also been inspired by the plant’s remarkable anti-splash properties to develop methods to reduce splashing in the common urinal — a legitimate public hygiene and facility maintenance cost concern, according to the researchers.

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