Field of Science

The Peat Moss Saga (Part 3)

As I mentioned earlier, Sphagnum is a very useful moss. (Pictured here is Sphagnum centrale.) It was used during World War I and II to dress the wounds of soldiers. Sphagnum, and the peat bogs they grow in, are characterized by high acidity. Recall your chemistry days; high acidity means a low pH (around 3.5 to 5.0 in peat bogs, which is close to the pH of an orange at 3.6 to 4.3 for a more familiar reference). This acidity is the feature that made Sphagnum a good dressing and kept the soldier’s wounds from becoming infected. It helped to kill bacteria, decreasing infection. In a pinch you could use Sphagnum to dress a cut, when in the wild, but I would not recommend it for everyday use.

There are many types of fungi that attack plants. In Sphagnum bogs, however, there are not many fungi that assault the mosses. This is especially odd since fungi grow well in acidic conditions. What is keeping the fungi from growing? Are there bacteria growing in the Sphagnum bogs that have anti-fungal properties?

Some scientists wanted to answer this question and they analyzed the bacteria in the Sphagnum to look for species that could kill the fungi. This might seem like a far out idea, but bacteria that surround plant roots are known to have anti-fungal properties. Bacteria with anti-fungal compounds could then be used to kill fungi that attack crop plants. [Trumpets blairing!] Mosses to the rescue!

I thought that this was a pretty cool idea, to mine the mosses for bacteria to use for biological control of fungi. In this study, the scientists isolated a number of bacteria from the Sphagnum bogs that were able to kill fungi. It will be interesting to see if this results in any commercial uses. The citation for this study is below the fold.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Opelt, K., C. Berg, and G. Berg. 2007. The bryophyte genus Sphagnum is a reservoir for powerful and extraordinary antagonists and potentially facultative human pathogens. Federation of European Microbiological Societies 61:38-53.


  1. Jessica... Good luck with your efforts in the lab. After years of making terraria and moss dish gardens, I started my own moss garden at my home in western North Carolina over seven years ago. It thrives! Also, thought you might be interested in my recent proposal. I have presented a project to The North Carolina Arboretum to create a Mountain Moss Garden... featuring the 450+ bryophytes indigenous to this region. The executive staff is interested and seriously reviewing the concept for viability and sustainability as a permanent exhibit. Glad to find another serious moss lover... and student of bryology.

  2. Thanks tons for the note. I have yet to try moss gardening at home since I have quite a few growing in the lab, but it is great to hear from people who are passionate about moss gardening! The proposal for the indigenous bryophyte garden sounds great. I know that there are some moss gardens in the North Western US states, but I have not heard of any in the southeastern part of the country. Best of luck and I hope that you proposal is funded. If it does go through it would be great to hear of a potential moss vacation location.


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