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1.  Hexagonal Platelet-like Magnetite as a Biosignature of Thermophilic Iron-Reducing Bacteria and Its Applications to the Exploration of the Modern Deep, Hot Biosphere and the Emergence of Iron-Reducing Bacteria in Early Precambrian Oceans 
Astrobiology  2012;12(12):1100-1108.
Dissimilatory iron-reducing bacteria are able to enzymatically reduce ferric iron and couple to the oxidation of organic carbon. This mechanism induces the mineralization of fine magnetite crystals characterized by a wide distribution in size and irregular morphologies that are indistinguishable from authigenic magnetite. Thermoanaerobacter are thermophilic iron-reducing bacteria that predominantly inhabit terrestrial hot springs or deep crusts and have the capacity to transform amorphous ferric iron into magnetite with a size up to 120 nm. In this study, I first characterize the formation of hexagonal platelet-like magnetite of a few hundred nanometers in cultures of Thermoanaerobacter spp. strain TOR39. Biogenic magnetite with such large crystal sizes and unique morphology has never been observed in abiotic or biotic processes and thus can be considered as a potential biosignature for thermophilic iron-reducing bacteria. The unique crystallographic features and strong ferrimagnetic properties of these crystals allow easy and rapid screening for the previous presence of iron-reducing bacteria in deep terrestrial crustal samples that are unsuitable for biological detection methods and, also, the search for biogenic magnetite in banded iron formations that deposited only in the first 2 billion years of Earth with evidence of life. Key Words: Biosignatures—Magnetite—Iron-reducing bacteria—Deep subsurface biosphere—Banded iron formation. Astrobiology 12, 1100–1108.
PMCID: PMC3522128  PMID: 23145573
2.  The Miniaturized Raman System and Detection of Traces of Life in Halite from the Atacama Desert: Some Considerations for the Search for Life Signatures on Mars 
Astrobiology  2012;12(12):1095-1099.
Raman spectroscopy is being adopted as a nondestructive instrumentation for the robotic exploration of Mars to search for traces of life in the geological record. Here, miniaturized Raman spectrometers of two different types equipped with 532 and 785 nm lasers for excitation, respectively, were compared for the detection of microbial biomarkers in natural halite from the hyperarid region of the Atacama Desert. Measurements were performed directly on the rock as well as on the homogenized, powdered samples prepared from this material—the effects of this sample preparation and the excitation wavelength employed in the analysis are compared and discussed. From these results, 532 nm excitation was found to be superior for the analysis of powdered specimens due to its high sensitivity toward carotenoids and hence a higher capability for their detection at relatively low concentration in bulk powdered specimens. For the same reason, this wavelength was a better choice for the detection of carotenoids in direct measurements made on the rock samples. The 785 nm excitation wavelength, in contrast, proved to be more sensitive toward the detection of scytonemin. Key Words: Miniaturized portable Raman—Atacama—Mars—Biomarker detection. Astrobiology 12, 1095–1099.
PMCID: PMC3522129  PMID: 23151300
3.  Response of Atmospheric Biomarkers to NOx-Induced Photochemistry Generated by Stellar Cosmic Rays for Earth-like Planets in the Habitable Zone of M Dwarf Stars 
Astrobiology  2012;12(12):1109-1122.
Understanding whether M dwarf stars may host habitable planets with Earth-like atmospheres and biospheres is a major goal in exoplanet research. If such planets exist, the question remains as to whether they could be identified via spectral signatures of biomarkers. Such planets may be exposed to extreme intensities of cosmic rays that could perturb their atmospheric photochemistry. Here, we consider stellar activity of M dwarfs ranging from quiet up to strong flaring conditions and investigate one particular effect upon biomarkers, namely, the ability of secondary electrons caused by stellar cosmic rays to break up atmospheric molecular nitrogen (N2), which leads to production of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the planetary atmosphere, hence affecting biomarkers such as ozone (O3). We apply a stationary model, that is, without a time dependence; hence we are calculating the limiting case where the atmospheric chemistry response time of the biomarkers is assumed to be slow and remains constant compared with rapid forcing by the impinging stellar flares. This point should be further explored in future work with time-dependent models. We estimate the NOx production using an air shower approach and evaluate the implications using a climate-chemical model of the planetary atmosphere. O3 formation proceeds via the reaction O+O2+M→O3+M. At high NOx abundances, the O atoms arise mainly from NO2 photolysis, whereas on Earth this occurs via the photolysis of molecular oxygen (O2). For the flaring case, O3 is mainly destroyed via direct titration, NO+O3→NO2+O2, and not via the familiar catalytic cycle photochemistry, which occurs on Earth. For scenarios with low O3, Rayleigh scattering by the main atmospheric gases (O2, N2, and CO2) became more important for shielding the planetary surface from UV radiation. A major result of this work is that the biomarker O3 survived all the stellar-activity scenarios considered except for the strong case, whereas the biomarker nitrous oxide (N2O) could survive in the planetary atmosphere under all conditions of stellar activity considered here, which clearly has important implications for missions that aim to detect spectroscopic biomarkers. Key Words: M dwarf—Atmosphere—Earth-like—Biomarkers—Stellar cosmic rays. Astrobiology 12, 1109–1122.
PMCID: PMC3522229  PMID: 23215581
4.  Multifactorial Resistance of Bacillus subtilis Spores to High-Energy Proton Radiation: Role of Spore Structural Components and the Homologous Recombination and Non-Homologous End Joining DNA Repair Pathways 
Astrobiology  2012;12(11):1069-1077.
The space environment contains high-energy charged particles (e.g., protons, neutrons, electrons, α-particles, heavy ions) emitted by the Sun and galactic sources or trapped in the radiation belts. Protons constitute the majority (87%) of high-energy charged particles. Spores of Bacillus species are one of the model systems used for astro- and radiobiological studies. In this study, spores of different Bacillus subtilis strains were used to study the effects of high energetic proton irradiation on spore survival. Spores of the wild-type B. subtilis strain [mutants deficient in the homologous recombination (HR) and non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) DNA repair pathways and mutants deficient in various spore structural components such as dipicolinic acid (DPA), α/β-type small, acid-soluble spore protein (SASP) formation, spore coats, pigmentation, or spore core water content] were irradiated as air-dried multilayers on spacecraft-qualified aluminum coupons with 218 MeV protons [with a linear energy transfer (LET) of 0.4 keV/μm] to various final doses up to 2500 Gy. Spores deficient in NHEJ- and HR-mediated DNA repair were significantly more sensitive to proton radiation than wild-type spores, indicating that both HR and NHEJ DNA repair pathways are needed for spore survival. Spores lacking DPA, α/β-type SASP, or with increased core water content were also significantly more sensitive to proton radiation, whereas the resistance of spores lacking pigmentation or spore coats was essentially identical to that of the wild-type spores. Our results indicate that α/β-type SASP, core water content, and DPA play an important role in spore resistance to high-energy proton irradiation, suggesting their essential function as radioprotectants of the spore interior. Key Words: Bacillus—Spores—DNA repair—Protection—High-energy proton radiation. Astrobiology 12, 1069–1077.
PMCID: PMC3491616  PMID: 23088412
5.  Experimentally Determined Standard Thermodynamic Properties of Synthetic MgSO4·4H2O (Starkeyite) and MgSO4·3H2O: A Revised Internally Consistent Thermodynamic Data Set for Magnesium Sulfate Hydrates 
Astrobiology  2012;12(11):1042-1054.
The enthalpies of formation of synthetic MgSO4·4H2O (starkeyite) and MgSO4·3H2O were obtained by solution calorimetry at T=298.15 K. The resulting enthalpies of formation from the elements are \documentclass{aastex}\usepackage{amsbsy}\usepackage{amsfonts}\usepackage{amssymb}\usepackage{bm}\usepackage{mathrsfs}\usepackage{pifont}\usepackage{stmaryrd}\usepackage{textcomp}\usepackage{portland, xspace}\usepackage{amsmath, amsxtra}\pagestyle{empty}\DeclareMathSizes{10}{9}{7}{6}\begin{document}$$\Delta_{ \rm f}H^0_{298}$$\end{document} (starkeyite)=−2498.7±1.1 kJ·mol−1 and \documentclass{aastex}\usepackage{amsbsy}\usepackage{amsfonts}\usepackage{amssymb}\usepackage{bm}\usepackage{mathrsfs}\usepackage{pifont}\usepackage{stmaryrd}\usepackage{textcomp}\usepackage{portland, xspace}\usepackage{amsmath, amsxtra}\pagestyle{empty}\DeclareMathSizes{10}{9}{7}{6}\begin{document}$$\Delta_{ \rm f}H^0_{298}$$\end{document} (MgSO4·3H2O)=−2210.3±1.3 kJ·mol−1. The standard entropy of starkeyite was derived from low-temperature heat capacity measurements acquired with a physical property measurement system (PPMS) in the temperature range 5 K
Additionally, differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) measurements with a Perkin Elmer Diamond DSC in the temperature range 270 K
The experimental Cp data of starkeyite between 229 and 303 K were fitted with a Maier-Kelley polynomial, yielding Cp(T)=107.925+0.5532·T−1048894·T−2.
The hydration state of all Mg sulfate hydrates changes in response to local temperature and humidity conditions. Based on recently reported equilibrium relative humidities and the new standard properties described above, the internally consistent thermodynamic database for the MgSO4·nH2O system was refined by a mathematical programming (MAP) analysis.
As can be seen from the resulting phase diagrams, starkeyite is metastable in the entire T-%RH range. Due to kinetic limitations of kieserite formation, metastable occurrence of starkeyite might be possible under martian conditions. Key Words: Mg sulfates—Starkeyite—Thermodynamic data—Entropy—Enthalpy—Calorimetry. Astrobiology 12, 1042–1054.
PMCID: PMC3491617  PMID: 23095098
Astrobiology  2012;12(11):1055-1068.
The functional end products of the extant biosynthesis of tetrapyrrole macrocycles in photosynthetic organisms are hydrophobic: chlorophylls and bacteriochlorophylls. A model for the possible prebiogenesis of hydrophobic analogues of nature's photosynthetic pigments was investigated by reaction of acyclic reactants in five media: aqueous solution (pH 7, 60°C, 24 h); aqueous solution containing 0.1 M decanoic acid (which forms a turbid suspension of vesicles); or aqueous solution accompanied by dodecane, mesitylene, or a five-component organic mixture (each of which forms a phase-separated organic layer). The organic mixture was composed of equimolar quantities of decanoic acid, dodecane, mesitylene, naphthalene, and pentyl acetate. The reaction of 1,5-dimethoxy-3-methylpentan-2,4-dione and 1-aminobutan-2-one to give etioporphyrinogens was enhanced in the presence of decanoic acid, affording (following chemical oxidation) etioporphyrins (tetraethyltetramethylporphyrins) in yields of 1.4–10.8% across the concentration range of 3.75–120 mM. The yield of etioporphyrins was greater in the presence of the five-component organic mixture (6.6% at 120 mM) versus that with dodecane or mesitylene (2.1% or 2.9%, respectively). The reaction in aqueous solution with no added oil-slick constituents resulted in phase separation—where the organic reactants themselves form an upper organic layer—and the yield of etioporphyrins was 0.5–2.6%. Analogous reactions leading to uroporphyrins (hydrophilic, eight carboxylic acids) or coproporphyrins (four carboxylic acids) were unaffected by the presence of decanoic acid or dodecane, and all yields were at most ∼2% or ∼8%, respectively. Taken together, the results indicate a facile means for the formation of highly hydrophobic constituents of potential value for prebiotic photosynthesis. Key Words: Origin of life—Prebiotic—Oil slick—Porphyrinogen—Porphyrin—Pyrrole—Partition. Astrobiology 12, 1055–1068.
PMCID: PMC3491618  PMID: 23095096
Astrobiology  2012;12(9):884-891.
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.
PMCID: PMC3444765  PMID: 22984873
Astrobiology  2012;12(9):809-817.
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.
PMCID: PMC3444770  PMID: 22917035
Astrobiology  2012;12(8):775-784.
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.
PMCID: PMC3440028  PMID: 22970865
Astrobiology  2012;12(8):754-774.
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.
PMCID: PMC3440031  PMID: 22897115
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):648-658.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426886  PMID: 22920515
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):634-640.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426884  PMID: 22920513
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):641-647.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426885  PMID: 22920514
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):685-698.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426887  PMID: 22882001
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):699-709.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426888  PMID: 22920518
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):659-673.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426889  PMID: 22920516
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):674-684.
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.
PMCID: PMC3426897  PMID: 22920517
Astrobiology  2012;12(6):535-548.
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.
PMCID: PMC3397119  PMID: 22794297
Astrobiology  2012;12(5):403-411.
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.
PMCID: PMC3371259  PMID: 22680687
Astrobiology  2012;12(5):387-392.
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.
PMCID: PMC3371260  PMID: 22680685
Astrobiology  2012;12(5):445-456.
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.
PMCID: PMC3371261  PMID: 22680691
Astrobiology  2012;12(5):393-402.
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.
PMCID: PMC3371263  PMID: 22680686
Astrobiology  2012;12(4):290-294.
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.
PMCID: PMC3330268  PMID: 22490065
Astrobiology  2012;12(4):315-326.
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.
PMCID: PMC3330558  PMID: 22519972
Astrobiology  2012;12(2):98-106.
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.
PMCID: PMC3277918  PMID: 22248384

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