Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 August 2007
We used synchrotron light to determine VUV-UV absorption spectra (125–340 nm) of thin films of substances associated with UV resistance in specific groups of organisms or across limited phylogenetic boundaries: scytonemin, mycosporine-like amino acids, dipicolinic acid, β-carotene, melanin and flavonoids (quercitrin, isoquercitrin, robinin and catechin). The objective was to extend known UV absorption spectra into the vacuum UV, and to evaluate the likely effectiveness of these molecules in shielding DNA from the unfiltered solar UV found in space, using similarity with DNA absorption spectra as the primary criterion. The spectroscopy indicated that plant flavonoids would be ideal UV screens in space. We suggest that flavonoids represent primitive UV screens, and offer explanations (including horizontal gene transfer) for their presence in plants. We also discuss the possibility of improving UV resistance by increasing flavonoid accumulation through metabolic engineering, in the hope of better adapting life for space travel, i.e. for its dissemination away from the Earth (exospermia). Finally, we propose using plant seeds as exospermia vehicles for sending life (including artificial life) into space.