2005 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  JUL 2004 – JUN 2005

Project 7. Astrobiotechnology

Project Summary

With continued support from NASA astrobiology instrument development funding (through the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development, or ASTID, Program), as well as NAI funding, Steele and colleagues continued to develop biotechnology instrumentation for solar system exploration

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

7. Astrobiotechnology


With continued support from NASA astrobiology instrument development funding (through the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development, or ASTID, Program), as well as NAI funding, Steele and colleagues continued to develop biotechnology instrumentation for solar system exploration. This effort, Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration (MASSE), has concentrated on using microfluidics to prepare a sample for inoculation onto a microarray that contains either DNA or antibody markers for specific targets. The list of targets currently under investigation has been significantly expanded this year to include antibodies to a range of extremophile and human disease proteins. Furthermore, a significant collaboration with Affymetrix on DNA probe development for astrobiology-relevant environments has begun. This technology will allow for the simultaneous screening of hundreds of separate organisms or functional genes in a convenient platform for field science.


Field and radiation-exposure testing has been underway on protein microarrays in collaboration with Mark Sims and David Cullen (Astrobiology Society of Britain). Fieldwork has concentrated on testing protein microarrays in both Kamchatka and Svalbard. Samples analyzed during the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) 2004 field season by protein microarrays were confirmed with other biotechnology tests including adenosine triphosphate measurements, DNA amplification using degenerate species and gene-specific primers, and an enzyme-based test for cell wall components (see below). A modified protocol for inoculation and reading of the protein arrays was undertaken after considerable laboratory testing. Instrumentation was transferred straight from Svalbard to Kamchatka where it was deployed to measure cell concentration in hot springs. The data obtained from these experiments remained consistent and illustrate the robust nature of protein arrays to be used in astrobiologically relevant environments

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A successful proposal to the European Space Agency (Jan Toporski, University of Kiel, Principal Investigator) to test microarrays on board the European Biopan series of low Earth orbit (LEO) missions means that testing on radiation exposure in space environments will begin. The next flight opportunity is scheduled for 2006 and will carry both protein and DNA microarrays and will mark the first time that microarrays will fly in space. Shielding will be included on some arrays to quantify the effects of launch and exposure to LEO space-radiation conditions.


Carnegie Institution of Washington, Charles River Laboratories, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), and the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), have teamed to perform environmental microbiology on the International Space Station (ISS). A new handheld device manufactured by Charles River, known as the Lab-On-a-Chip Applications and Development Portable Test System (LOCAD PTS), will be used by the crew to detect and monitor potentially harmful bacteria and fungi in the cabin environment. The device will be launched to the ISS on Space Shuttle mission STS-116 in the spring of 2006. This will be the first biotechnology device to fly in space specifically for the sensitive detection of microorganisms.


Collaborator Jake Maule has been chosen by NASA to serve as Project Scientist for the LOCAD PTS. He will be responsible for coordination of science operations (pre-flight and on-orbit) and will be a liaison between the project’s partner institutions and the NASA Johnson Space Center. Since 2002, Maule has worked with the MASSE team and Norman Wainwright of MBL to prepare the LOCAD PTS for space flight, involving tests performed in parabolic flight (see Figure 2), isolated underwater human habitats, and astrobiologically relevant Mars analogue field sites such as Svalbard and Kamchatka.

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Microfluidic development for microarray handling has continued, and experiments on sample concentration are currently underway using an automated sample handling system built under ASTID funding.


The ability to monitor the expression levels of thousands of genes simultaneously offers the potential to expand the analysis of a single stress response toward a genetic network of different stress responses to each other. A study currently underway is comparing the response to “normal” stress, such as heat shock, with that to ultra-high-pressure stress in Escherichia coli as well as the response to the wild type response. Gene expression profiling is conducted by using the GeneChip┬« E. coli Genome 2.0 Array at the facilities of Affymetrix, in Santa Clara, California. This technique will elucidate the reaction and viability of cells under high pressures.

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  • PROJECT INVESTIGATORS:
    Wesley Huntress Wesley Huntress
    Co-Investigator
    James Scott James Scott
    Co-Investigator
    Andrew Steele Andrew Steele
    Co-Investigator
    Ed Vicenzi Ed Vicenzi
    Co-Investigator
  • PROJECT MEMBERS:
    Jake Maule
    Collaborator

    Jan Toporski
    Collaborator

    Marc Fries
    Postdoc

    Maia Schweizer
    Doctoral Student

    Verena Starke
    Doctoral Student

  • RELATED OBJECTIVES:
    Objective 2.1
    Mars exploration

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 3.2
    Origins and evolution of functional biomolecules

    Objective 4.2
    Foundations of complex life

    Objective 5.3
    Biochemical adaptation to extreme environments

    Objective 6.2
    Adaptation and evolution of life beyond Earth

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials