The transition from genomic ribonucleic acid (RNA) to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in primitive cells may have created a selection pressure that refined the genetic alphabet, resulting from the global weakening of the N-glycosyl bonds. Hydrolytic rupture of these bonds, termed deglycosylation, leaves an abasic site that is the single greatest threat to the stability and integrity of genomic DNA. The rates of deglycosylation are highly dependent on the identity of the nucleobases. Modifications made to the bases, such as deamination, oxidation, and alkylation, can further increase deglycosylation reaction rates, suggesting that the native bases provide optimum N-glycosyl bond stability. To protect their genomes, cells have evolved highly specific enzymes called glycosylases, associated with DNA repair, that detect and remove these damaged bases. In RNA, however, the occurrence of many of these modified bases is deliberate. The dichotomous behavior that cells exhibit toward base modifications may have originated in the RNA world. Modified bases would have been advantageous for the functional and structural repertoire of catalytic RNAs. Yet in an early DNA world, the utility of these heterocycles was greatly diminished, and their presence posed a distinct liability to the stability of cells' genomes. A natural selection for bases exhibiting the greatest resistance to deglycosylation would have ensured the viability of early DNA life, along with the recruitment of DNA repair. Key Words: DNA—Nucleic acids—RNA world—Asteroid—Chemical evolution—Ribozymes. Astrobiology 12, 884–891.
The discovery of large (>100 u) molecules in Titan's upper atmosphere has heightened astrobiological interest in this unique satellite. In particular, complex organic aerosols produced in atmospheres containing C, N, O, and H, like that of Titan, could be a source of prebiotic molecules. In this work, aerosols produced in a Titan atmosphere simulation experiment with enhanced CO (N2/CH4/CO gas mixtures of 96.2%/2.0%/1.8% and 93.2%/5.0%/1.8%) were found to contain 18 molecules with molecular formulae that correspond to biological amino acids and nucleotide bases. Very high-resolution mass spectrometry of isotopically labeled samples confirmed that C4H5N3O, C4H4N2O2, C5H6N2O2, C5H5N5, and C6H9N3O2 are produced by chemistry in the simulation chamber. Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analyses of the non-isotopic samples confirmed the presence of cytosine (C4H5N3O), uracil (C5H4N2O2), thymine (C5H6N2O2), guanine (C5H5N5O), glycine (C2H5NO2), and alanine (C3H7NO2). Adenine (C5H5N5) was detected by GC-MS in isotopically labeled samples. The remaining prebiotic molecules were detected in unlabeled samples only and may have been affected by contamination in the chamber. These results demonstrate that prebiotic molecules can be formed by the high-energy chemistry similar to that which occurs in planetary upper atmospheres and therefore identifies a new source of prebiotic material, potentially increasing the range of planets where life could begin. Key Words: Astrochemistry—Planetary atmospheres—Titan—Astrobiology. Astrobiology 12, 809–817.
In the Universe, oxygen is the third most widespread element, while on Earth it is the most abundant one. Moreover, oxygen is a major constituent of all biopolymers fundamental to living organisms. Besides O2, reactive oxygen species (ROS), among them hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), are also important reactants in the present aerobic metabolism. According to a widely accepted hypothesis, aerobic metabolism and many other reactions/pathways involving O2 appeared after the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis. In this study, the hypothesis was formulated that the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) was at least able to tolerate O2 and detoxify ROS in a primordial environment. A comparative analysis was carried out of a number of the O2-and H2O2-involving metabolic reactions that occur in strict anaerobes, facultative anaerobes, and aerobes. The results indicate that the most likely LUCA possessed O2-and H2O2-involving pathways, mainly reactions to remove ROS, and had, at least in part, the components of aerobic respiration. Based on this, the presence of a low, but significant, quantity of H2O2 and O2 should be taken into account in theoretical models of the early Archean atmosphere and oceans and the evolution of life. It is suggested that the early metabolism involving O2/H2O2 was a key adaptation of LUCA to already existing weakly oxic zones in Earth's primordial environment. Key Words: Hydrogen peroxide—Oxygen—Origin of life—Photosynthesis—Superoxide dismutase—Superoxide reductase. Astrobiology 12, 775–784.
We examined a low-energy mechanism for the transfer of meteoroids between two planetary systems embedded in a star cluster using quasi-parabolic orbits of minimal energy. Using Monte Carlo simulations, we found that the exchange of meteoroids could have been significantly more efficient than previously estimated. Our study is relevant to astrobiology, as it addresses whether life on Earth could have been transferred to other planetary systems in the Solar System's birth cluster and whether life on Earth could have been transferred from beyond the Solar System. In the Solar System, the timescale over which solid material was delivered to the region from where it could be transferred via this mechanism likely extended to several hundred million years (as indicated by the 3.8–4.0 Ga epoch of the Late Heavy Bombardment). This timescale could have overlapped with the lifetime of the Solar birth cluster (∼100–500 Myr). Therefore, we conclude that lithopanspermia is an open possibility if life had an early start. Adopting parameters from the minimum mass solar nebula, considering a range of planetesimal size distributions derived from observations of asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects and theoretical coagulation models, and taking into account Oort Cloud formation models, we discerned that the expected number of bodies with mass>10 kg that could have been transferred between the Sun and its nearest cluster neighbor could be of the order of 1014 to 3·1016, with transfer timescales of tens of millions of years. We estimate that of the order of 3·108·l (km) could potentially be life-bearing, where l is the depth of Earth's crust in kilometers that was ejected as the result of the early bombardment. Key Words: Extrasolar planets—Interplanetary dust—Interstellar meteorites—Lithopanspermia. Astrobiology 12, 754–774.
Planetary climate can be affected by the interaction of the host star spectral energy distribution with the wavelength-dependent reflectivity of ice and snow. In this study, we explored this effect with a one-dimensional (1-D), line-by-line, radiative transfer model to calculate broadband planetary albedos as input to a seasonally varying, 1-D energy balance climate model. A three-dimensional (3-D) general circulation model was also used to explore the atmosphere's response to changes in incoming stellar radiation, or instellation, and surface albedo. Using this hierarchy of models, we simulated planets covered by ocean, land, and water-ice of varying grain size, with incident radiation from stars of different spectral types. Terrestrial planets orbiting stars with higher near-UV radiation exhibited a stronger ice-albedo feedback. We found that ice extent was much greater on a planet orbiting an F-dwarf star than on a planet orbiting a G-dwarf star at an equivalent flux distance, and that ice-covered conditions occurred on an F-dwarf planet with only a 2% reduction in instellation relative to the present instellation on Earth, assuming fixed CO2 (present atmospheric level on Earth). A similar planet orbiting the Sun at an equivalent flux distance required an 8% reduction in instellation, while a planet orbiting an M-dwarf star required an additional 19% reduction in instellation to become ice-covered, equivalent to 73% of the modern solar constant. The reduction in instellation must be larger for planets orbiting cooler stars due in large part to the stronger absorption of longer-wavelength radiation by icy surfaces on these planets in addition to stronger absorption by water vapor and CO2 in their atmospheres, which provides increased downwelling longwave radiation. Lowering the IR and visible-band surface ice and snow albedos for an M-dwarf planet increased the planet's climate stability against changes in instellation and slowed the descent into global ice coverage. The surface ice-albedo feedback effect becomes less important at the outer edge of the habitable zone, where atmospheric CO2 could be expected to be high such that it maintains clement conditions for surface liquid water. We showed that ∼3–10 bar of CO2 will entirely mask the climatic effect of ice and snow, leaving the outer limits of the habitable zone unaffected by the spectral dependence of water ice and snow albedo. However, less CO2 is needed to maintain open water for a planet orbiting an M-dwarf star than would be the case for hotter main-sequence stars. Key Words: Extrasolar planets—M stars—Habitable zone—Snowball Earth. Astrobiology 13, 715–739.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) is an oasis in the desert of Mexico characterized by low phosphorus availability and by its great diversity of microbial mats. We compared the metagenomes of two aquatic microbial mats from the CCB with different nutrient limitations. We observed that the red mat was P-limited and dominated by Pseudomonas, while the green mat was N-limited and had higher species richness, with Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria as the most abundant phyla. From their gene content, we deduced that both mats were very metabolically diverse despite their use of different strategies to cope with their respective environments. The red mat was found to be mostly heterotrophic, while the green mat was more autotrophic. The red mat had a higher number of transporters in general, including transporters of cellobiose and osmoprotectants. We suggest that generalists with plastic genomes dominate the red mat, while specialists with minimal genomes dominate the green mat. Nutrient limitation was a common scenario on the early planet; despite this, biogeochemical cycles were performed, and as a result the planet changed. The metagenomes of microbial mats from the CCB show the different strategies a community can use to cope with oligotrophy and persist. Key Words: Microbial mats—Metagenomics—Metabolism. Astrobiology 12, 648–658.
We discuss the potential interactions among travel (dispersal and gene flow), bacterial “sex” (mainly as horizontal gene transfer), and food (metabolic plasticity and responses to nutrient availability) in shaping microbial communities. With regard to our work at a unique desert oasis, the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin in Coahuila, Mexico, we propose that diversification and low phosphorus availability, in combination with mechanisms for nutrient recycling and community cohesion, result in enhanced speciation through reproductive as well as geographic isolation. We also discuss these mechanisms in the broader sense of ecology and evolution. Of special relevance to astrobiology and central to evolutionary biology, we ask why there are so many species on Earth and provide a working hypothesis and a conceptual framework within which to consider the question. Key Words: Microbial ecology—Microbial mats—Evolution—Horizontal gene transfer—Metabolism. Astrobiology 12, 634–640.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) is a rare oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. It has a biological endemism similar to that of the Galapagos Islands, and its spring-fed ecosystems have very low nutrient content (nitrogen or phosphorous) and are dominated by diverse microbialites. Thus, it has proven to be a distinctive opportunity for the field of astrobiology, as the CCB can be seen as a proxy for an earlier time in Earth's history, in particular the late Precambrian, the biological frontier when prokaryotic life yielded at least partial dominance to eukaryotes and multicellular life. It is a kind of ecological time machine that provides abundant opportunities for collaborative investigations by geochemists, geologists, ecologists, and population biologists in the study of the evolutionary processes that structured Earth-based life, especially in the microbial realm. The CCB is an object of investigation for the identification of biosignatures of past and present biota that can be used in our search for extraterrestrial life. In this review, we summarize CCB research efforts that began with microbial ecology and population biology projects and have since been expanded into broader efforts that involve biogeochemistry, comparative genomics, and assessments of biosignatures. We also propose that, in the future, the CCB is sanctioned as a “Precambrian Park” for astrobiology. Key Words: Microbial mats—Stromatolites—Early Earth—Extremophilic microorganisms—Microbial ecology. Astrobiology 12, 641–647.
Microbialites are biologically mediated carbonate deposits found in diverse environments worldwide. To explore the organisms and processes involved in microbialite formation, this study integrated genomic, lipid, and both organic and inorganic stable isotopic analyses to examine five discrete depth horizons spanning the surface 25 mm of a modern freshwater microbialite from Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico. Distinct bacterial communities and geochemical signatures were observed in each microbialite layer. Photoautotrophic organisms accounted for approximately 65% of the sequences in the surface community and produced biomass with distinctive lipid biomarker and isotopic (δ13C) signatures. This photoautotrophic biomass was efficiently degraded in the deeper layers by heterotrophic organisms, primarily sulfate-reducing proteobacteria. Two spatially distinct zones of carbonate precipitation were observed within the microbialite, with the first zone corresponding to the phototroph-dominated portion of the microbialite and the second zone associated with the presence of sulfate-reducing heterotrophs. The coupling of photoautotrophic production, heterotrophic decomposition, and remineralization of organic matter led to the incorporation of a characteristic biogenic signature into the inorganic CaCO3 matrix. Overall, spatially resolved multidisciplinary analyses of the microbialite enabled correlations to be made between the distribution of specific organisms, precipitation of carbonate, and preservation of unique lipid and isotopic geochemical signatures. These findings are critical for understanding the formation of modern microbialites and have implications for the interpretation of ancient microbialite records. Key Words: Microbial ecology—Microbe-mineral interactions—Microbial mats—Stromatolites—Genomics. Astrobiology 12, 685–698.
The OMEGA/Mars Express hyperspectral imager identified gypsum at several sites on Mars in 2005. These minerals constitute a direct record of past aqueous activity and are important with regard to the search of extraterrestrial life. Gale Crater was chosen as Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity's landing site because it is rich in gypsum, as are some desert soils of the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) (Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico). The gypsum of the CCB, which is overlain by minimal carbonate deposits, was the product of magmatic activity that occurred under the Tethys Sea. To examine this Mars analogue, we retrieved gypsum-rich soil samples from two contrasting sites with different humidity in the CCB. To characterize the site, we obtained nutrient data and analyzed the genes related to the N cycle (nifH, nirS, and nirK) and the bacterial community composition by using 16S rRNA clone libraries. As expected, the soil content for almost all measured forms of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus were higher at the more humid site than at the drier site. What was unexpected is the presence of a rich and divergent community at both sites, with higher taxonomic diversity at the humid site and almost no taxonomic overlap. Our results suggest that the gypsum-rich soils of the CCB host a unique microbial ecosystem that includes novel microbial assemblies. Key Words: Cuatro Ciénegas Basin—Gale Crater—Gypsum soil microbial diversity—Molecular ecology—Nitrogen cycle. Astrobiology 12, 699–709.
Microbial mats are self-sustained, functionally complex ecosystems that make good models for the understanding of past and present microbial ecosystems as well as putative extraterrestrial ecosystems. Ecological theory suggests that the composition of these communities might be affected by nutrient availability and disturbance frequency. We characterized two microbial mats from two contrasting environments in the oligotrophic Cuatro Ciénegas Basin: a permanent green pool and a red desiccation pond. We analyzed their taxonomic structure and composition by means of 16S rRNA clone libraries and metagenomics and inferred their metabolic role by the analysis of functional traits in the most abundant organisms. Both mats showed a high diversity with metabolically diverse members and strongly differed in structure and composition. The green mat had a higher species richness and evenness than the red mat, which was dominated by a lineage of Pseudomonas. Autotrophs were abundant in the green mat, and heterotrophs were abundant in the red mat. When comparing with other mats and stromatolites, we found that taxonomic composition was not shared at species level but at order level, which suggests environmental filtering for phylogenetically conserved functional traits with random selection of particular organisms. The highest diversity and composition similarity was observed among systems from stable environments, which suggests that disturbance regimes might affect diversity more strongly than nutrient availability, since oligotrophy does not appear to prevent the establishment of complex and diverse microbial mat communities. These results are discussed in light of the search for extraterrestrial life. Key Words: Cuatro Ciénegas—Metagenomics—Microbial mats—Oligotrophic—Phosphorus limitation—Stromatolites. Astrobiology 12, 659–673.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) has been identified as a center of endemism for many life-forms. Nearly half the bacterial species found in the spring systems have their closest relatives in the ocean. This raises the question of whether the high diversity observed today is the product of an adaptive radiation similar to that of the Galapagos Islands or whether the bacterial groups are “survivors” of an ancient sea, which would be of interest for astrobiology.
To help answer this question, we focused on Firmicutes from Cuatro Ciénegas (mainly Bacillus and Exiguobacterium). We reconstructed the phylogenetic relationships of Firmicutes with 28 housekeeping genes and dated the resulting tree using geological events as calibration points.
Our results show that marine Bacillus diverged from other Bacillus strains 838 Ma, while Bacillus from Cuatro Ciénegas have divergence dates that range from 770 to 202 Ma. The members of Exiguobacterium from the CCB conform to a much younger group that diverged from the Andes strain 60 Ma and from the one in Yellowstone 183 Ma. Therefore, the diversity of Firmicutes in Cuatro Ciénegas is not the product of a recent radiation but the product of the isolation of lineages from an ancient ocean. Hence, Cuatro Ciénegas is not a Galapagos Archipelago for bacteria but is more like an astrobiological “time machine” in which bacterial lineages survived in an oligotrophic environment that may be very similar to that of the Precambrian. Key Words: Firmicutes—Cuatro Ciénegas—Precambrian—Molecular dating—Western Interior Seaway. Astrobiology 12, 674–684.
Calcification and silicification processes of cyanobacterial mats that form stromatolites in two caldera lakes of Niuafo‘ou Island (Vai Lahi and Vai Si‘i) were evaluated, and their importance as analogues for interpreting the early fossil record are discussed. It has been shown that the potential for morphological preservation of Niuafo‘ou cyanobacteria is highly dependent on the timing and type of mineral phase involved in the fossilization process. Four main modes of mineralization of cyanobacteria organic parts have been recognized: (i) primary early postmortem calcification by aragonite nanograins that transform quickly into larger needle-like crystals and almost totally destroy the cellular structures, (ii) primary early postmortem silicification of almost intact cyanobacterial cells that leave a record of spectacularly well-preserved cellular structures, (iii) replacement by silica of primary aragonite that has already recrystallized and obliterated the cellular structures, (iv) occasional replacement of primary aragonite precipitated in the mucopolysaccharide sheaths and extracellular polymeric substances by Al-Mg-Fe silicates. These observations suggest that the extremely scarce earliest fossil record may, in part, be the result of (a) secondary replacement by silica of primary carbonate minerals (aragonite, calcite, siderite), which, due to recrystallization, had already annihilated the cellular morphology of the mineralized microbiota or (b) relatively late primary silicification of already highly degraded and no longer morphologically identifiable microbial remains. Key Words: Stromatolites—Cyanobacteria—Calcification—Silicification—Niuafo‘ou (Tonga)—Archean. Astrobiology 12, 535–548.
The aim of this paper is to present the time profile of cosmic radiation exposure obtained by the Radiation Risk Radiometer-Dosimeter during the EXPOSE-E mission in the European Technology Exposure Facility on the International Space Station's Columbus module. Another aim is to make the obtained results available to other EXPOSE-E teams for use in their data analysis. Radiation Risk Radiometer-Dosimeter is a low-mass and small-dimension automatic device that measures solar radiation in four channels and cosmic ionizing radiation as well. The main results of the present study include the following: (1) three different radiation sources were detected and quantified—galactic cosmic rays (GCR), energetic protons from the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) region of the inner radiation belt, and energetic electrons from the outer radiation belt (ORB); (2) the highest daily averaged absorbed dose rate of 426 μGy d−1 came from SAA protons; (3) GCR delivered a much smaller daily absorbed dose rate of 91.1 μGy d−1, and the ORB source delivered only 8.6 μGy d−1. The analysis of the UV and temperature data is a subject of another article (Schuster et al., 2012). Key Words: Ionizing radiation—R3D—ISS. Astrobiology 12, 403–411.
In the frame of the EXPOSE-E mission on the Columbus external payload facility EuTEF on board the International Space Station, passive thermoluminescence dosimeters were applied to measure the radiation exposure of biological samples. The detectors were located either as stacks next to biological specimens to determine the depth dose distribution or beneath the sample carriers to determine the dose levels for maximum shielding. The maximum mission dose measured in the upper layer of the depth dose part of the experiment amounted to 238±10 mGy, which relates to an average dose rate of 408±16 μGy/d. In these stacks of about 8 mm height, the dose decreased by 5–12% with depth. The maximum dose measured beneath the sample carriers was 215±16 mGy, which amounts to an average dose rate of 368±27 μGy/d. These values are close to those assessed for the interior of the Columbus module and demonstrate the high shielding of the biological experiments within the EXPOSE-E facility. Besides the shielding by the EXPOSE-E hardware itself, additional shielding was experienced by the external structures adjacent to EXPOSE-E, such as EuTEF and Columbus. This led to a dose gradient over the entire exposure area, from 215±16 mGy for the lowest to 121±6 mGy for maximum shielding. Hence, the doses perceived by the biological samples inside EXPOSE-E varied by 70% (from lowest to highest dose). As a consequence of the high shielding, the biological samples were predominantly exposed to galactic cosmic heavy ions, while electrons and a significant fraction of protons of the radiation belts and solar wind did not reach the samples. Key Words: Space radiation—Dosimetry—Passive radiation detectors—Thermoluminescence—EXPOSE-E. Astrobiology 12, 387–392.
Spore-forming bacteria are of particular concern in the context of planetary protection because their tough endospores may withstand certain sterilization procedures as well as the harsh environments of outer space or planetary surfaces. To test their hardiness on a hypothetical mission to Mars, spores of Bacillus subtilis 168 and Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 were exposed for 1.5 years to selected parameters of space in the experiment PROTECT during the EXPOSE-E mission on board the International Space Station. Mounted as dry layers on spacecraft-qualified aluminum coupons, the “trip to Mars” spores experienced space vacuum, cosmic and extraterrestrial solar radiation, and temperature fluctuations, whereas the “stay on Mars” spores were subjected to a simulated martian environment that included atmospheric pressure and composition, and UV and cosmic radiation. The survival of spores from both assays was determined after retrieval. It was clearly shown that solar extraterrestrial UV radiation (λ≥110 nm) as well as the martian UV spectrum (λ≥200 nm) was the most deleterious factor applied; in some samples only a few survivors were recovered from spores exposed in monolayers. Spores in multilayers survived better by several orders of magnitude. All other environmental parameters encountered by the “trip to Mars” or “stay on Mars” spores did little harm to the spores, which showed about 50% survival or more. The data demonstrate the high chance of survival of spores on a Mars mission, if protected against solar irradiation. These results will have implications for planetary protection considerations. Key Words: Planetary protection—Bacterial spores—Space experiment—Simulated Mars mission. Astrobiology 12, 445–456.
Radiation Risk Radiometer-Dosimeter E (R3DE) served as a device for measuring ionizing and non-ionizing radiation as well as cosmic radiation reaching biological samples located on the EXPOSE platform EXPOSE-E. The duration of the mission was almost 1.5 years (2008–2009). With four channels, R3DE detected the wavelength ranges of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR, 400–700 nm), UVA (315–400 nm), UVB (280–315 nm), and UVC (<280 nm). In addition, the temperature was recorded. Cosmic ionizing radiation was assessed with a 256-channel spectrometer dosimeter (see separate report in this issue). The light and UV sensors of the device were calibrated with spectral measurement data obtained by the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) satellite as standard. The data were corrected with respect to the cosine error of the diodes. Measurement frequency was 0.1 Hz. Due to errors in data transmission or temporary termination of EXPOSE power, not all data could be acquired. Radiation was not constant during the mission. At regular intervals of about 2 months, low or almost no radiation was encountered. The radiation dose during the mission was 1823.98 MJ m−2 for PAR, 269.03 MJ m−2 for UVA, 45.73 MJ m−2 for UVB, or 18.28 MJ m−2 for UVC. Registered sunshine duration during the mission was about 152 days (about 27% of mission time).The surface of EXPOSE was most likely turned away from the Sun for considerably longer. R3DE played a crucial role on EXPOSE-EuTEF (EuTEF, European Technology Exposure Facility), because evaluation of the astrobiology experiments depended on reliability of the data collected by the device. Observed effects in the samples were weighted by radiation doses measured by R3DE. Key Words: ISS—EXPOSE-E—R3DE—Radiation measurement—PAR—UV radiation. Astrobiology 12, 393–402.
Existing and planned optical telescopes and surveys can detect artificially illuminated objects, comparable in total brightness to a major terrestrial city, at the outskirts of the Solar System. Orbital parameters of Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) are routinely measured to exquisite precisions of<10−3. Here, we propose to measure the variation of the observed flux F from such objects as a function of their changing orbital distances D. Sunlight-illuminated objects will show a logarithmic slope α ≡ (d log F/d log D)=−4, whereas artificially illuminated objects should exhibit α=−2. The proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and other planned surveys will provide superb data and allow measurement of α for thousands of KBOs. If objects with α=−2 are found, follow-up observations could measure their spectra to determine whether they are illuminated by artificial lighting. The search can be extended beyond the Solar System with future generations of telescopes on the ground and in space that would have the capacity to detect phase modulation due to very strong artificial illumination on the nightside of planets as they orbit their parent stars. Key Words: Astrobiology—SETI—Kuiper belt objects—Artificial illumination. Astrobiology 12, 290–294.
Nitrile incorporation into Titan aerosol accompanying hydrocarbon chemistry is thought to be driven by extreme UV wavelengths (λ<120 nm) or magnetospheric electrons in the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Far UV radiation (120–200 nm), which is transmitted down to the stratosphere of Titan, is expected to affect hydrocarbon chemistry only and not initiate the formation of nitrogenated species. We examined the chemical properties of photochemical aerosol produced at far UV wavelengths, using a high-resolution time-of-flight aerosol mass spectrometer (HR-ToF-AMS), which allows for elemental analysis of particle-phase products. Our results show that aerosol formed from CH4/N2 photochemistry contains a surprising amount of nitrogen, up to 16% by mass, a result of photolysis in the far UV. The proportion of nitrogenated organics to hydrocarbon species is shown to be correlated with that of N2 in the irradiated gas. The aerosol mass greatly decreases when N2 is removed, which indicates that N2 plays a major role in aerosol production. Because direct dissociation of N2 is highly improbable given the immeasurably low cross section at the wavelengths studied, the chemical activation of N2 must occur via another pathway. Any chemical activation of N2 at wavelengths >120 nm is presently unaccounted for in atmospheric photochemical models. We suggest that reaction with CH radicals produced from CH4 photolysis may provide a mechanism for incorporating N into the molecular structure of the aerosol. Further work is needed to understand the chemistry involved, as these processes may have significant implications for how we view prebiotic chemistry on early Earth and similar planets. Key Words: Titan—Photochemical aerosol—CH4-N2 photolysis—Far UV—Nitrogen activation. Astrobiology 12, 315–326.
The martian surface environment exhibits extremes of salinity, temperature, desiccation, and radiation that would make it difficult for terrestrial microbes to survive. Recent evidence suggests that martian soils contain high concentrations of MgSO4 minerals. Through warming of the soils, meltwater derived from subterranean ice-rich regolith may exist for an extended period of time and thus allow the propagation of terrestrial microbes and create significant bioburden at the near surface of Mars. The current report demonstrates that halotolerant bacteria from the Great Salt Plains (GSP) of Oklahoma are capable of growing at high concentrations of MgSO4 in the form of 2 M solutions of epsomite. The epsotolerance of isolates in the GSP bacterial collection was determined, with 35% growing at 2 M MgSO4. There was a complex physiological response to mixtures of MgSO4 and NaCl coupled with other environmental stressors. Growth also was measured at 1 M concentrations of other magnesium and sulfate salts. The complex responses may be partially explained by the pattern of chaotropicity observed for high-salt solutions as measured by agar gelation temperature. Select isolates could grow at the high salt concentrations and low temperatures found on Mars. Survival during repetitive freeze-thaw or drying-rewetting cycles was used as other measures of potential success on the martian surface. Our results indicate that terrestrial microbes might survive under the high-salt, low-temperature, anaerobic conditions on Mars and present significant potential for forward contamination. Stringent planetary protection requirements are needed for future life-detection missions to Mars. Key Words: Analogue—Mars—Planetary protection—Salts—Life in extreme environments. Astrobiology 12, 98–106.
While the Apex chert is one of the most well-studied Archean deposits on Earth, its formation history is still not fully understood. Here, we present Raman spectroscopic data collected on the carbonaceous material (CM) present within the matrix of the Apex chert. These data, collected within a paragenetic framework, reveal two different phases of CM deposited within separate phases of quartz matrix. These multiple generations of CM illustrate the difficulty of searching for signs of life in these rocks and, by extension, in other Archean sequences. Key Words: Apex chert—Carbonaceous material—Raman microspectroscopy—Paragenetic analysis—Archean. Astrobiology 12, 160–166.
The boundary between ice and basalt on Earth is an analogue for some near-surface environments of Mars. We investigated neutrophilic iron-oxidizing microorganisms from the basalt-ice interface in a lava tube from the Oregon Cascades with perennial ice. One of the isolates (Pseudomonas sp. HerB) can use ferrous iron Fe(II) from the igneous mineral olivine as an electron donor and O2 as an electron acceptor. The optimum growth temperature is ∼12–14°C, but growth also occurs at 5°C. Bicarbonate is a facultative source of carbon. Growth of Pseudomonas sp. HerB as a chemolithotrophic iron oxidizer with olivine as the source of energy is favored in low O2 conditions (e.g., 1.6% O2). Most likely, microbial oxidation of olivine near pH 7 requires low O2 to offset the abiotic oxidation of iron. The metabolic capabilities of this bacterium would allow it to live in near-surface, icy, volcanic environments of Mars in the present or recent geological past and make this type of physiology a prime candidate in the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Extremophiles—Mars—Olivine—Iron-oxidizing bacteria—Redox. Astrobiology 12, 9–18.
The emergence of an RNA entity capable of synthesizing peptides was a key prebiotic development. It is hypothesized that a precursor of the modern ribosomal exit tunnel was associated with this RNA entity (e.g., “protoribosome” or “bonding entity”) from the earliest time and played an essential role. Various compounds that can bind and activate amino acids, including extremely short RNA chains carrying amino acids, and possibly di- or tripeptides, would have associated with the internal cavity of the protoribosome. This cavity hosts the site for peptide bond formation and adjacent to it a relatively elongated feature that could have evolved to the modern ribosomal exit tunnel, as it is wide enough to allow passage of an oligopeptide. When two of the compounds carrying amino acids or di- or tripeptides (to which we refer, for simplicity, as small aminoacylated RNAs) were in proximity within the heart of the protoribosome, a peptide bond could form spontaneously. The growing peptide would enter the nearby cavity and would not disrupt the attachment of the substrates to the protoribosome or interfere with the subsequent attachment of additional small aminoacylated RNAs. Additionally, the presence of the peptide in the cavity would increase the lifetime of the oligopeptide in the protoribosome. Thus, subsequent addition of another amino acid would be more likely than detachment from the protoribosome, and synthesis could continue. The early ability to synthesize peptides may have resulted in an abbreviated RNA World. Key Words: Ribosome—RNA World—Prebiotic synthesis—Chirality—Ribosomal RNA. Astrobiology 12, 57–60.
The spaceflight environment presents unique challenges to terrestrial biology, including but not limited to the direct effects of gravity. As we near the end of the Space Shuttle era, there remain fundamental questions about the response and adaptation of plants to orbital spaceflight conditions. We address a key baseline question of whether gene expression changes are induced by the orbital environment, and then we ask whether undifferentiated cells, cells presumably lacking the typical gravity response mechanisms, perceive spaceflight. Arabidopsis seedlings and undifferentiated cultured Arabidopsis cells were launched in April, 2010, as part of the BRIC-16 flight experiment on STS-131. Biologically replicated DNA microarray and averaged RNA digital transcript profiling revealed several hundred genes in seedlings and cell cultures that were significantly affected by launch and spaceflight. The response was moderate in seedlings; only a few genes were induced by more than 7-fold, and the overall intrinsic expression level for most differentially expressed genes was low. In contrast, cell cultures displayed a more dramatic response, with dozens of genes showing this level of differential expression, a list comprised primarily of heat shock–related and stress-related genes. This baseline transcriptome profiling of seedlings and cultured cells confirms the fundamental hypothesis that survival of the spaceflight environment requires adaptive changes that are both governed and displayed by alterations in gene expression. The comparison of intact plants with cultures of undifferentiated cells confirms a second hypothesis: undifferentiated cells can detect spaceflight in the absence of specialized tissue or organized developmental structures known to detect gravity. Key Words: Tissue culture—Microgravity—Low Earth orbit—Space Shuttle—Microarray. Astrobiology 12, 40–56.
The Atacama Desert has long been considered a good Mars analogue for testing instrumentation for planetary exploration, but very few data (if any) have been reported about the geomicrobiology of its salt-rich subsurface. We performed a Mars analogue drilling campaign next to the Salar Grande (Atacama, Chile) in July 2009, and several cores and powder samples from up to 5 m deep were analyzed in situ with LDChip300 (a Life Detector Chip containing 300 antibodies). Here, we show the discovery of a hypersaline subsurface microbial habitat associated with halite-, nitrate-, and perchlorate-containing salts at 2 m deep. LDChip300 detected bacteria, archaea, and other biological material (DNA, exopolysaccharides, some peptides) from the analysis of less than 0.5 g of ground core sample. The results were supported by oligonucleotide microarray hybridization in the field and finally confirmed by molecular phylogenetic analysis and direct visualization of microbial cells bound to halite crystals in the laboratory. Geochemical analyses revealed a habitat with abundant hygroscopic salts like halite (up to 260 g kg−1) and perchlorate (41.13 μg g−1 maximum), which allow deliquescence events at low relative humidity. Thin liquid water films would permit microbes to proliferate by using detected organic acids like acetate (19.14 μg g−1) or formate (76.06 μg g−1) as electron donors, and sulfate (15875 μg g−1), nitrate (13490 μg g−1), or perchlorate as acceptors. Our results correlate with the discovery of similar hygroscopic salts and possible deliquescence processes on Mars, and open new search strategies for subsurface martian biota. The performance demonstrated by our LDChip300 validates this technology for planetary exploration, particularly for the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Atacama Desert—Life detection—Biosensor—Biopolymers—In situ measurement. Astrobiology 11, 969–996.