Stratosphere Conditions Inactivate Bacterial Endospores from a Mars Spacecraft Assembly Facility

Christina L. Khodadad, Gregory M. Wong, Leandro M. James, Prital J. Thakrar, Michael A. Lane, John A. Catechis, David J. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


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 × 107 spores per sample), a radiation-Tolerant strain collected from a spacecraft assembly facility. The payload spent 8 h 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. Unfortunately, an instrument malfunction prevented the acquisition of UV light measurements during our balloon mission. To make up for the absence of radiometer data, we calculated a stratosphere UV model and conducted ground tests with a 271.1 nm UVC light source (0.5 W/m2), observing a similarly rapid inactivation rate when using a lower number of contaminants (640 spores per sample). The starting concentration of spores and microconfiguration 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. Key Words: Planetary protection-Stratosphere-Balloon-Mars analog environment-E-MIST payload-Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032. Astrobiology 17, 337-350.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)337-350
Number of pages14
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2017
Externally publishedYes

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