2007 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  JUL 2006 – JUN 2007

Project 7. Astrobiotechnology

Project Summary

Co-Investigator Andrew Steele and colleagues have continued to develop the Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration (MASSE) concept, which uses microfluidic technology to incubate a DNA or protein microarray. This year has been a milestone in the use of this technology in space with involvement in two missions, one to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the STS 116 shuttle launch, the other a Biopan low earth orbit exposure mission that will launch in September.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Co-Investigator Andrew Steele and colleagues have continued to develop the Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration (MASSE) concept, which uses microfluidic technology to incubate a DNA or protein microarray. This year has been a milestone in the use of this technology in space with involvement in two missions, one to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the STS 116 shuttle launch, the other a Biopan low earth orbit exposure mission that will launch in September. The use of protein microarrays in field analogue studies has been extended to include an automated unit developed for the Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) in 2007. The AMASE 2006 expedition included successful deployments of a Cliffbot rover, two Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) instrument prototypes, and several other instruments in development for missions. A Mark III Apollo-style space suit was also tested in the field to begin to understand integration issues between human and robotic platforms that are being developed for human exploration.

To highlight three of the above-mentioned areas of work:

(1) The Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development – Portable Test System (LOCAD-PTS) was operated for the first time on the ISS during April-May 2007 (Figure 1). This instrument uses interchangeable thumb-sized cartridges for the detection of a variety of biological and chemical target molecules in the cabin environment. In this first phase of ISS operations, the crew used a certain type of cartridge – known as Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) – to detect endotoxin (a molecule found in cell walls of certain types of bacteria and fungi) on various surfaces within Node 1 and the U.S. Laboratory.

{{ 1 }}

During instrument check-out onboard, control test results showed that the instrument and procedures functioned nominally, with the positive control (a swab of the palm) giving a high reading (2.4 endotoxin Units, or EU, per 25 cm2) and the negative control (no swab) giving the lowest possible reading (<0.05 EU/25 cm2). The smooth and flat surfaces in Node 1 were relatively clean – an average of 0.1 EU/25 cm2 – approximately 25 times “cleaner” than the positive control. The fabric surface of the Temporary Sleep Station (TeSS) in the U.S. Laboratory analyzed in session 3 contained higher levels of endotoxin.

LOCAD-PTS is set to have an extended array of applications as new cartridges are launched to the ISS, from monitoring the cabin environment for other biological and chemical contaminants to monitoring blood and saliva of the crew to support medical diagnostics. Two types of new cartridge are scheduled for launch to the ISS in 2008 on flights 1J/A and ULF-2. The first type will be a fungi-specific test, the second will be specific to gram-positive bacteria, and further cartridges are under development for future flights. Looking further ahead, it is hoped that this type of rapid and portable technology will be implemented on future human lunar missions to monitor the spread of Earth-derived biological material on the lunar surface following landing. This will be important preparation for the human exploration of Mars, where a major scientific goal will be the search for life and differentiation of that signal from biological material brought there by the crew and their spacecraft.

(2) Biopan 6 will launch from Baikonur in Russia on 14 September 2007 and remain in orbit for 14 days. Steele’s group, in collaboration with the Leicester Life Marker Chip (LMC) group, will be supplying protein microarrays containing several antibodies, fluorescent dyes, and nucleotide sequences printed in a 100-spot array. The objective of the flight is to expose the arrays to radiation in low-Earth orbit, to check the efficacy of using microarrays in space flight missions. The microarrays will be placed behind shielding of differing thicknesses to mimic conditions on a Mars mission or on the ISS. Any decrease in activity will be monitored against control arrays that stay on Earth. The MASSE team has continued to collaborate with the SMILE (Specific Molecular Identification of Life Experiment) team, led by Mark Sims at the University of Leicester, which has successfully proposed to build the life marker chip (LMC) portion of the European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars mission. The MASSE team (CIW, LOCAD, and the Charles River Laboratories) is currently collaborating with SMILE on proof-of-concept studies for ESA.

(3) The MASSE team has continued to develop a prototype system for the incubation and reading of protein microarrays in the field. This system will be deployed onboard the AMASE Expedition in August 2007. AMASE 2006 was the latest of a series of expeditions whose primary goals are to test portable instruments for their robustness as field instruments for life detection (for robotic and future human missions to Mars), to assess the Mars analogue environments for signs of life, to refine protocols for contamination reduction, and to understand the effects of transport on sample integrity by assessing bioloads immediately in the field and then comparing these with laboratory measurements made after transportation. There have been three previous expeditions that were run by the Department of Physics of Geological Processes at the University of Oslo in collaboration with CIW, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA Ames Research Center, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, University of Leeds, University of Burgos, Pennsylvania State University, Macquarie University (Center for Geochemical Evolution and Metallogeny of Continents), and the Smithsonian Institution, and with invaluable help and support from the Norwegian Space Centre, the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), and the Norwegian Polar Institute.

A wide variety of science instruments and platforms was deployed on AMASE 2006, including the two instrument prototypes for the MSL mission: the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry and the CheMin (for CHEmistry and MINeralogy) X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence (XRD/XRF) instruments. Other instruments included a portable Raman spectrometer, an ultraviolet excitation spectrometer (laser-induced native fluorescence), a digital color microscope, portable Lab-on-a-Chip test systems, and a complete polymerization chain reaction (PCR) system. A rover carrying a camera and a microscopic imager and a non-pressurized Mark III prototype spacesuit with a portable computer system were the primary platforms tested alongside the instruments.

{{ 2 }}

  • PROJECT INVESTIGATORS:
    Sean Solomon Sean Solomon
    Project Investigator
    Andrew Steele Andrew Steele
    Co-Investigator
  • PROJECT MEMBERS:
    Wesley Huntress
    Co-Investigator

    Ed Vicenzi
    Co-Investigator

    Marc Fries
    Collaborator

    Jake Maule
    Collaborator

    James Scott
    Collaborator

    Jan Toporski
    Collaborator

    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