ELSI Seminar

Dr. David J. Smith (NASA Ames Research Center, Space Biosciences Research Branch)
November 20, 2017

ELSI-1 Building – ELSI Hall

Stratosphere Conditions Inactivate Bacterial Endospores from a Mars Spacecraft Assembly Facility

Speaker: Dr. David J. Smith (NASA Ames Research Center, Space Biosciences Research Branch)

Every spacecraft sent to Mars is allowed to land viable microbial bioburden, including hardy endospore-forming bacteria resistant to environmental extremes. Earth's stratosphere is severely cold, dry, irradiated, and oligotrophic; it can be used as a stand-in location for predicting how stowaway microbes might respond to the martian surface. We launched E-MIST, a high-altitude NASA balloon payload on 10 October 2015 carrying known quantities of viable Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 (4.07 x 107 spores per sample), a radiation-tolerant strain collected from a spacecraft assembly facility. The payload spent 8 hours at 31 km above sea level, exposing bacterial spores to the stratosphere. We found that within 120 and 240 min, spore viability was significantly reduced by 2 and 4 orders of magnitude, respectively. By 480 min, <0.001% of spores carried to the stratosphere remained viable. Our balloon flight results predict that most terrestrial bacteria would be inactivated within the first sol on Mars if contaminated spacecraft surfaces receive direct sunlight. The starting concentration of spores and micro-configuration on hardware surfaces appeared to influence survivability outcomes in both experiments. With the relatively few spores that survived the stratosphere, we performed a resequencing analysis and identified three single nucleotide polymorphisms compared to unexposed controls. It is therefore plausible that bacteria enduring radiation-rich environments (e.g., Earth's upper atmosphere, interplanetary space, or the surface of Mars) may be pushed in evolutionarily consequential directions.