Modes of Adaptation, Resistance, and Survival for Life Inhabiting a Freeze-dried-radiation-bathed Environment
LSU Biology, LSU Physics, LaTech University, Southern University, Aarhus University, NASA – Ames

The presence of water on Mars and on a number of planetary moons (e.g., Europa, Enceladus, Ariel, and Triton) suggests that multiple loci within the solar system may plausibly support microbial life. In this context, the overarching theme of the project proposed here, MARSLIFE, is that selective pressures in terrestrial extreme environments serve as “training grounds” that enrich for microbial phenotypes that may dominate extraterrestrial habitats on Mars and elsewhere. The MARSLIFE program will: (1) investigate existing and novel microorganisms with tolerances to cold, desiccation, and radiation as models for astrobiology; (2) use laboratory simulators to assess responses of selected extremophiles to temperature, pressure, and radiation conditions that exist in a range of extraterrestrial environments; (3) characterize biological resistance mechanisms to freezing, desiccation, and radiation, and (4) improve technologies for the detection and sampling of microorganisms under conditions similar to the surface of Mars. The expected outcomes include the development of fundamental astrobiological concepts and operational capabilities that would promote the success of future NASA-driven life detection missions, inform policies on planetary protection, and lay the foundation for a new space research enterprise in Louisiana.

This project was selected by a panel of out-of-state reviewers (following Board of Regents procedures used in all LA EPSCoR programs) as one that had a high probability of acquiring new scientific knowledge, providing student education/training, and developing an important research direction for the state. The project builds upon stimulus work supported by Space Grant and EPSCoR and utilizes the expertise already developed through the LaACES and HASP student ballooning projects. The institutions, LSU, SU and LaTech, bring together a variety of research and education capabilities and, in conjunction with NASA mentors, the relationships nurtured within MARSLIFE will produce technologically informed, interdisciplinary scientists, foster new technology and educational opportunities, and increase the collaboration between NASA and Louisiana.

We propose to examine the biology of microorganisms which persist without liquid water and/or under high radiation fluxes using several different approaches. Due to the similarity of conditions on the surface of Mars, we will examine microorganisms that survive conditions in the high troposphere and stratosphere. Using an assortment of these novel organisms, as well as those available from our collective research programs, we will systematically examine the diversity and molecular makeup of adaptive mechanisms that aid survival in extremely dehydrated environments and confer resistance to radiation and freezing. Incorporated into this effort is the development of two major technical facilities designed to enable and support the biological investigations. First, we will develop an instrument to provide scientifically robust atmospheric samples of microorganisms as a function of altitude above the Earth’s surface. This instrument, which will include environment characterization, will be carried to altitudes up to 120,000 feet by a helium filled balloon and will help define a similar instrument for a future planetary mission. Second, we will develop a ground-based environmental simulator capable of reproducing the temperature, pressure, gas composition and UV radiation found in the stratosphere as well as on the surface of Mars. The simulator will enable us to ground test payloads and to establish extreme environments for biological experiments.