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By investigating the survival and the biomarker detectability of a rock-inhabiting cyanobacterium, Chroococcidiopsis sp. CCMEE 029, the BIOMEX space experiment might contribute to a future exploitation of the Moon as a test-bed for key astrobiology tasks such as the testing of life-detection technologies and the study of life in space. Post-flight analyses demonstrated that the mixing of dried cells with sandstone and a lunar regolith simulant provided protection against space UV radiation. During the space exposure, dried cells not mixed with minerals were killed by 2.05 × 102 kJ m−2 of UV radiation, while cells mixed with sandstone or lunar regolith survived 1.59 × 102 and 1.79 × 102 kJ m−2, respectively. No differences in survival occurred among cells mixed and not mixed with minerals and exposed to space conditions in the dark; this finding suggests that space vacuum and 0.5 Gy of ionizing radiation did not impair the cells’ presence in space. The genomic DNA of dead cells was severely damaged but still detectable with PCR amplification of a short target, thus suggesting that short sequences should be targeted in a PCR-based approach when searching for traces of life. The enhanced stability of genomic DNA of dried cells mixed with minerals and exposed to space indicates that DNA might still be detectable after prolonged periods, possibly up to millions of years in microbes shielded by minerals. Overall, the BIOMEX results contribute to future experiments regarding the exposure of cells and their biomarkers to deep space conditions in order to further test the lithopanspermia hypothesis, the biomarker stability and the microbial endurance, with implications for planetary protection and to determine if the Moon has been contaminated during past human missions.
Even though technological advances could allow humans to reach Mars in the coming decades, launch costs prohibit the establishment of permanent manned outposts for which most consumables would be sent from Earth. This issue can be addressed by in situ resource utilization: producing part or all of these consumables on Mars, from local resources. Biological components are needed, among other reasons because various resources could be efficiently produced only by the use of biological systems. But most plants and microorganisms are unable to exploit Martian resources, and sending substrates from Earth to support their metabolism would strongly limit the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of their cultivation. However, resources needed to grow specific cyanobacteria are available on Mars due to their photosynthetic abilities, nitrogen-fixing activities and lithotrophic lifestyles. They could be used directly for various applications, including the production of food, fuel and oxygen, but also indirectly: products from their culture could support the growth of other organisms, opening the way to a wide range of life-support biological processes based on Martian resources. Here we give insights into how and why cyanobacteria could play a role in the development of self-sustainable manned outposts on Mars.
What is astrobiology? Which fields does it comprise and what makes an astrobiologist? Ask five scientists and you may end up with six different definitions. This issue was raised at the first symposium of the European network of Astrobiology Graduates (AbGradE), held last year in Edinburgh, when discussing whether the attendees’ fields of study were represented in the astrobiology community.
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