Final year PhD Researcher, The University of Sheffield
Researching the microbiology of the stratosphere
How life originated on Earth is a mystery to us, one theory suggests that life first arrived carried inside meteorites and comets from other places in the universe. To investigate this, we sent out balloons up into the stratosphere, at a height that is four times what commercial aeroplanes fly at! Collecting samples and searching for signs of life in a place where nothing is supposed to exist.
Abstract: The Tanpopo mission will address fundamental questions on the origin of terrestrial life. The main goal is to test the panspermia hypothesis. Panspermia is a long-standing hypothesis suggesting the interplanetary transport of microbes. Another goal is to test the possible origin of organic compounds carried from space by micrometeorites before the terrestrial origin of life. To investigate the panspermia hypothesis and the possible space origin of organic compounds, we performed space experiments at the Exposed Facility (EF) of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) of the International Space Station (ISS). The mission was named Tanpopo, which in Japanese means dandelion. We capture any orbiting microparticles, such as micrometeorites, space debris, and terrestrial particles carrying microbes as bioaerosols, by using blocks of silica aerogel. We also test the survival of microbial species and organic compounds in the space environment for up to 3 years. The goal of this review is to introduce an overview of the Tanpopo mission with particular emphasis on the investigation of the interplanetary transfer of microbes. The Exposed Experiment Handrail Attachment Mechanism with aluminum Capture Panels (CPs) and Exposure Panels (EPs) was exposed on the EF-JEM on May 26, 2015. The first CPs and EPs will be returned to the ground in mid-2016. Possible escape of terrestrial microbes from Earth to space will be evaluated by investigating the upper limit of terrestrial microbes by the capture experiment. Possible mechanisms for transfer of microbes over the stratosphere and an investigation of the effect of the microbial cell-aggregate size on survivability in space will also be discussed. Key Words: Panspermia-Astrobiology-Low-Earth orbit. Astrobiology 16, 363-376.
Pub.: 14 May '16, Pinned: 13 Sep '17
Abstract: Every spacecraft sent to Mars is allowed to land viable microbial bioburden, including hardy endospore-forming bacteria resistant to environmental extremes. Earth's stratosphere is severely cold, dry, irradiated, and oligotrophic; it can be used as a stand-in location for predicting how stowaway microbes might respond to the martian surface. We launched E-MIST, a high-altitude NASA balloon payload on 10 October 2015 carrying known quantities of viable Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 (4.07 × 10(7) spores per sample), a radiation-tolerant strain collected from a spacecraft assembly facility. The payload spent 8 h at ∼31 km above sea level, exposing bacterial spores to the stratosphere. We found that within 120 and 240 min, spore viability was significantly reduced by 2 and 4 orders of magnitude, respectively. By 480 min, <0.001% of spores carried to the stratosphere remained viable. Our balloon flight results predict that most terrestrial bacteria would be inactivated within the first sol on Mars if contaminated spacecraft surfaces receive direct sunlight. Unfortunately, an instrument malfunction prevented the acquisition of UV light measurements during our balloon mission. To make up for the absence of radiometer data, we calculated a stratosphere UV model and conducted ground tests with a 271.1 nm UVC light source (0.5 W/m(2)), observing a similarly rapid inactivation rate when using a lower number of contaminants (640 spores per sample). The starting concentration of spores and microconfiguration on hardware surfaces appeared to influence survivability outcomes in both experiments. With the relatively few spores that survived the stratosphere, we performed a resequencing analysis and identified three single nucleotide polymorphisms compared to unexposed controls. It is therefore plausible that bacteria enduring radiation-rich environments (e.g., Earth's upper atmosphere, interplanetary space, or the surface of Mars) may be pushed in evolutionarily consequential directions. Key Words: Planetary protection-Stratosphere-Balloon-Mars analog environment-E-MIST payload-Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032. Astrobiology 17, xxx-xxx.
Pub.: 23 Mar '17, Pinned: 13 Sep '17
Abstract: Panspermia, an ancient idea, posits that microbial life is ubiquitous in the Universe. After several decades of almost irrational rejection, panspermia is at last coming to be regarded as a serious contender for the beginnings of life on our planet. Astronomical data is shown to be consistent with the widespread distribution of complex organic molecules and dust particles that may have a biological provenance. A minuscule (10(-21)) survival rate of freeze-dried bacteria in space is all that is needed to ensure the continual re-cycling of cosmic microbial life in the galaxy. Evidence that terrestrial life may have come from elsewhere in the solar system has accumulated over the past decade. Mars is seen by some as a possible source of terrestrial life, but some hundreds of billions of comets that enveloped the entire solar system, are a far more likely primordial reservoir of life. Comets would then have seeded Earth, Mars, and indeed all other habitable planetary bodies in the inner regions of the solar system. The implications of this point of view, which was developed in conjunction with the late Sir Fred Hoyle since the 1970s, are now becoming amenable to direct empirical test by studies of pristine organic material in the stratosphere. The ancient theory of panspermia may be on the verge of vindication, in which case the entire universe would be a grand crucible of cryomicrobiology.
Pub.: 20 Apr '04, Pinned: 13 Sep '17
Abstract: Panspermia theory holds that microbial life is present in space or on bodies like comets or asteroids, and it can be safely delivered to Earth and start life there. For the theory of panspermia to have credence, it is necessary to demonstrate that life could exist in the harsh condition of space. The discovery of microorganisms able to survive permanently in frozen environments, such as ancient permafrost and ice, makes in principle realistic for bacteria to be carried through space in ice-cold comets. Due to the increasing interest in astrobiology, research in the microbial ecology and diversity of psychrophiles has increased considerably over the past years. In this review, a brief summary of the latest results on biology, ecology and physiology of microorganisms colonizing cold and icy habitats is reported.
Pub.: 26 Jul '11, Pinned: 13 Sep '17
Abstract: Microbial taxa from every major biological lineage have been detected in Earth's upper atmosphere. The goal of this review is to communicate (1) relevant astrobiology questions that can be addressed with upper atmosphere microbiology studies and (2) available sampling methods for collecting microbes at extreme altitudes. Precipitation, mountain stations, airplanes, balloons, rockets, and satellites are all feasible routes for conducting aerobiology research. However, more efficient air samplers are needed, and contamination is also a pervasive problem in the field. Measuring microbial signatures without false positives in the upper atmosphere might contribute to sterilization and bioburden reduction methods for proposed astrobiology missions. Intriguingly, environmental conditions in the upper atmosphere resemble the surface conditions of Mars (extreme cold, hypobaria, desiccation, and irradiation). Whether terrestrial microbes are active in the upper atmosphere is an area of intense research interest. If, in fact, microbial metabolism, growth, or replication is achievable independent of Earth's surface, then the search for habitable zones on other worlds should be broadened to include atmospheres (e.g., the high-altitude clouds of Venus). Furthermore, viable cells in the heavily irradiated upper atmosphere of Earth could help identify microbial genes or enzymes that bestow radiation resistance. Compelling astrobiology questions on the origin of life (if the atmosphere synthesized organic aerosols), evolution (if airborne transport influenced microbial mutation rates and speciation), and panspermia (outbound or inbound) are also testable in Earth's upper atmosphere.
Pub.: 11 Oct '13, Pinned: 13 Sep '17