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1.  Biota and Biomolecules in Extreme Environments on Earth: Implications for Life Detection on Mars 
Life  2014;4(4):535-565.
The three main requirements for life as we know it are the presence of organic compounds, liquid water, and free energy. Several groups of organic compounds (e.g., amino acids, nucleobases, lipids) occur in all life forms on Earth and are used as diagnostic molecules, i.e., biomarkers, for the characterization of extant or extinct life. Due to their indispensability for life on Earth, these biomarkers are also prime targets in the search for life on Mars. Biomarkers degrade over time; in situ environmental conditions influence the preservation of those molecules. Nonetheless, upon shielding (e.g., by mineral surfaces), particular biomarkers can persist for billions of years, making them of vital importance in answering questions about the origins and limits of life on early Earth and Mars. The search for organic material and biosignatures on Mars is particularly challenging due to the hostile environment and its effect on organic compounds near the surface. In support of life detection on Mars, it is crucial to investigate analogue environments on Earth that resemble best past and present Mars conditions. Terrestrial extreme environments offer a rich source of information allowing us to determine how extreme conditions affect life and molecules associated with it. Extremophilic organisms have adapted to the most stunning conditions on Earth in environments with often unique geological and chemical features. One challenge in detecting biomarkers is to optimize extraction, since organic molecules can be low in abundance and can strongly adsorb to mineral surfaces. Methods and analytical tools in the field of life science are continuously improving. Amplification methods are very useful for the detection of low concentrations of genomic material but most other organic molecules are not prone to amplification methods. Therefore, a great deal depends on the extraction efficiency. The questions “what to look for”, “where to look”, and “how to look for it” require more of our attention to ensure the success of future life detection missions on Mars.
PMCID: PMC4284457  PMID: 25370528
biomarkers; Mars; minerals; adsorption; extreme environments; life detection; extraction techniques; origin of life
2.  Cosmic Carbon Chemistry: From the Interstellar Medium to the Early Earth 
Astronomical observations have shown that carbonaceous compounds in the gas and solid state, refractory and icy are ubiquitous in our and distant galaxies. Interstellar molecular clouds and circumstellar envelopes are factories of complex molecular synthesis. A surprisingly large number of molecules that are used in contemporary biochemistry on Earth are found in the interstellar medium, planetary atmospheres and surfaces, comets, asteroids and meteorites, and interplanetary dust particles. In this article we review the current knowledge of abundant organic material in different space environments and investigate the connection between presolar and solar system material, based on observations of interstellar dust and gas, cometary volatiles, simulation experiments, and the analysis of extraterrestrial matter. Current challenges in astrochemistry are discussed and future research directions are proposed.
Complex organic molecules are present in cosmic dust, comets, and meteorites, which could have delivered material necessary for the emergence of life on Earth and other planets.
PMCID: PMC2982172  PMID: 20554702
3.  Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as Plausible Prebiotic Membrane Components 
Aromatic molecules delivered to the young Earth during the heavy bombardment phase in the early history of our solar system were likely to be among the most abundant and stable organic compounds available. The Aromatic World hypothesis suggests that aromatic molecules might function as container elements, energy transduction elements and templating genetic components for early life forms. To investigate the possible role of aromatic molecules as container elements, we incorporated different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the membranes of fatty acid vesicles. The goal was to determine whether PAH could function as a stabilizing agent, similar to the role that cholesterol plays in membranes today. We studied vesicle size distribution, critical vesicle concentration and permeability of the bilayers using C6-C10 fatty acids mixed with amphiphilic PAH derivatives such as 1-hydroxypyrene, 9-anthracene carboxylic acid and 1,4 chrysene quinone. Dynamic Light Scattering (DLS) spectroscopy was used to measure the size distribution of vesicles and incorporation of PAH species was established by phase-contrast and epifluorescence microscopy. We employed conductimetric titration to determine the minimal concentration at which fatty acids could form stable vesicles in the presence of PAHs. We found that oxidized PAH derivatives can be incorporated into decanoic acid (DA) vesicle bilayers in mole ratios up to 1:10 (PAH:DA). Vesicle size distribution and critical vesicle concentration were largely unaffected by PAH incorporation, but 1-hydroxypyrene and 9-anthracene carboxylic acid lowered the permeability of fatty acid bilayers to small solutes up to 4-fold. These data represent the first indication of a cholesterol-like stabilizing effect of oxidized PAH derivatives in a simulated prebiotic membrane.
PMCID: PMC3427487  PMID: 22798228
Primitive membranes; Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; Membrane permeability
4.  Effect of Shadowing on Survival of Bacteria under Conditions Simulating the Martian Atmosphere and UV Radiation▿ †  
Spacecraft-associated spores and four non-spore-forming bacterial isolates were prepared in Atacama Desert soil suspensions and tested both in solution and in a desiccated state to elucidate the shadowing effect of soil particulates on bacterial survival under simulated Martian atmospheric and UV irradiation conditions. All non-spore-forming cells that were prepared in nutrient-depleted, 0.2-μm-filtered desert soil (DSE) microcosms and desiccated for 75 days on aluminum died, whereas cells prepared similarly in 60-μm-filtered desert soil (DS) microcosms survived such conditions. Among the bacterial cells tested, Microbacterium schleiferi and Arthrobacter sp. exhibited elevated resistance to 254-nm UV irradiation (low-pressure Hg lamp), and their survival indices were comparable to those of DS- and DSE-associated Bacillus pumilus spores. Desiccated DSE-associated spores survived exposure to full Martian UV irradiation (200 to 400 nm) for 5 min and were only slightly affected by Martian atmospheric conditions in the absence of UV irradiation. Although prolonged UV irradiation (5 min to 12 h) killed substantial portions of the spores in DSE microcosms (∼5- to 6-log reduction with Martian UV irradiation), dramatic survival of spores was apparent in DS-spore microcosms. The survival of soil-associated wild-type spores under Martian conditions could have repercussions for forward contamination of extraterrestrial environments, especially Mars.
PMCID: PMC2258572  PMID: 18083857

Results 1-4 (4)