Assessment of the Forward Contamination Risk of Mars by Clean Room Isolates from Space-Craft Assembly Facilities through Aeolian Transport - a Model Study

Research paper by Luc van Heereveld, Jonathan Merrison, Per Nørnberg, Kai Finster

Published on: 26 Jul '16Published in: Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres


The increasing number of missions to Mars also increases the risk of forward contamination. Consequently there is a need for effective protocols to ensure efficient protection of the Martian environment against terrestrial microbiota. Despite the fact of constructing sophisticated clean rooms for spacecraft assembly a 100 % avoidance of contamination appears to be impossible. Recent surveys of these facilities have identified a significant number of microbes belonging to a variety of taxonomic groups that survive the harsh conditions of clean rooms. These microbes may have a strong contamination potential, which needs to be investigate to apply efficient decontamination treatments. In this study we propose a series of tests to evaluate the potential of clean room contaminants to survive the different steps involved in forward contamination. We used Staphylococcus xylosus as model organism to illustrate the different types of stress that potential contaminants will be subjected to on their way from the spacecraft onto the surface of Mars. Staphylococcus xylosus is associated with human skin and commonly found in clean rooms and could therefore contaminate the spacecraft as a result of human activity during the assembling process. The path the cell will take from the surface of the spacecraft onto the surface of Mars was split into steps representing different stresses that include desiccation, freezing, aeolian transport in a Martian-like atmosphere at Martian atmospheric pressure, and UV radiation climate. We assessed the surviving fraction of the cellular population after each step by determining the integrated metabolic activity of the survivor population by measuring their oxygen consumption rate. The largest fraction of the starting culture (around 70 %) was killed during desiccation, while freezing, Martian vacuum and short-term UV radiation only had a minor additional effect on the survivability of Staphylococcus xylosus. The study also included a simulation of atmospheric transport on Martian dust, which did not significantly alter the metabolic potential of the cells. The high survival potential of skin microbes, which are not among the most robust isolates, clearly underlines the necessity for efficient decontamination protocols and of adequate planetary protection measures. Thus we propose a series of tests to be included into the description of isolates from spacecraft assembly clean rooms in order to assess the forward contamination potential of the specific isolate and to categorize the risk level according to the organisms survival potential. We are aware that the tests that we propose do not exhaust the types of challenges that the microbes would meet on their way and therefore the series of tests is open to being extended.

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