Life2014, 4(4), 566-585; doi:10.3390/life4040566 - published 13 October 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: Eleven onshore mud volcanoes in the southern region of Trinidad have been studied as analog habitats for possible microbial life on Mars. The profiles of the 11 mud volcanoes are presented in terms of their physical, chemical, mineralogical, and soil properties. The mud volcanoes sampled all emitted methane gas consistently at 3% volume. The average pH for the mud volcanic soil was 7.98. The average Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) was found to be 2.16 kg/mol, and the average Percentage Water Content was 34.5%. Samples from three of the volcanoes, (i) Digity; (ii) Piparo and (iii) Devil’s Woodyard were used to culture bacterial colonies under anaerobic conditions indicating possible presence of methanogenic microorganisms. The Trinidad mud volcanoes can serve as analogs for the Martian environment due to similar geological features found extensively on Mars in Acidalia Planitia and the Arabia Terra region.
Life2014, 4(4), 535-565; doi:10.3390/life4040535 - published 13 October 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: The three main requirements for life as we know it are the presence of organic compounds, liquid water, and free energy. Several groups of organic compounds (e.g., amino acids, nucleobases, lipids) occur in all life forms on Earth and are used as diagnostic molecules, i.e., biomarkers, for the characterization of extant or extinct life. Due to their indispensability for life on Earth, these biomarkers are also prime targets in the search for life on Mars. Biomarkers degrade over time; in situ environmental conditions influence the preservation of those molecules. Nonetheless, upon shielding (e.g., by mineral surfaces), particular biomarkers can persist for billions of years, making them of vital importance in answering questions about the origins and limits of life on early Earth and Mars. The search for organic material and biosignatures on Mars is particularly challenging due to the hostile environment and its effect on organic compounds near the surface. In support of life detection on Mars, it is crucial to investigate analogue environments on Earth that resemble best past and present Mars conditions. Terrestrial extreme environments offer a rich source of information allowing us to determine how extreme conditions affect life and molecules associated with it. Extremophilic organisms have adapted to the most stunning conditions on Earth in environments with often unique geological and chemical features. One challenge in detecting biomarkers is to optimize extraction, since organic molecules can be low in abundance and can strongly adsorb to mineral surfaces. Methods and analytical tools in the field of life science are continuously improving. Amplification methods are very useful for the detection of low concentrations of genomic material but most other organic molecules are not prone to amplification methods. Therefore, a great deal depends on the extraction efficiency. The questions “what to look for”, “where to look”, and “how to look for it” require more of our attention to ensure the success of future life detection missions on Mars.
Life2014, 4(3), 511-534; doi:10.3390/life4030511 - published 15 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: The geomicrobiological characterization of the water column and sediments of Río Tinto (Huelva, Southwestern Spain) have proven the importance of the iron and the sulfur cycles, not only in generating the extreme conditions of the habitat (low pH, high concentration of toxic heavy metals), but also in maintaining the high level of microbial diversity detected in the basin. It has been proven that the extreme acidic conditions of Río Tinto basin are not the product of 5000 years of mining activity in the area, but the consequence of an active underground bioreactor that obtains its energy from the massive sulfidic minerals existing in the Iberian Pyrite Belt. Two drilling projects, MARTE (Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment) (2003–2006) and IPBSL (Iberian Pyrite Belt Subsurface Life Detection) (2011–2015), were developed and carried out to provide evidence of subsurface microbial activity and the potential resources that support these activities. The reduced substrates and the oxidants that drive the system appear to come from the rock matrix. These resources need only groundwater to launch diverse microbial metabolisms. The similarities between the vast sulfate and iron oxide deposits on Mars and the main sulfide bioleaching products found in the Tinto basin have given Río Tinto the status of a geochemical and mineralogical Mars terrestrial analogue.
Life2014, 4(3), 491-510; doi:10.3390/life4030491 - published 11 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: Projecting a vision for space radiobiological research necessitates understanding the nature of the space radiation environment and how radiation risks influence mission planning, timelines and operational decisions. Exposure to space radiation increases the risks of astronauts developing cancer, experiencing central nervous system (CNS) decrements, exhibiting degenerative tissue effects or developing acute radiation syndrome. One or more of these deleterious health effects could develop during future multi-year space exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Shielding is an effective countermeasure against solar particle events (SPEs), but is ineffective in protecting crew members from the biological impacts of fast moving, highly-charged galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) nuclei. Astronauts traveling on a protracted voyage to Mars may be exposed to SPE radiation events, overlaid on a more predictable flux of GCR. Therefore, ground-based research studies employing model organisms seeking to accurately mimic the biological effects of the space radiation environment must concatenate exposures to both proton and heavy ion sources. New techniques in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and other “omics” areas should also be intelligently employed and correlated with phenotypic observations. This approach will more precisely elucidate the effects of space radiation on human physiology and aid in developing personalized radiological countermeasures for astronauts.
Life2014, 4(3), 457-490; doi:10.3390/life4030457 - published 5 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: The paper offers a design perspective on protocell applications and presents original research that characterizes the life-like qualities of the Bütschli dynamic droplet system, as a particular “species” of protocell. Specific focus is given to the possibility of protocell species becoming a technical platform for designing and engineering life-like solutions to address design challenges. An alternative framing of the protocell, based on process philosophy, sheds light on its capabilities as a technology that can deal with probability and whose ontology is consistent with complexity, nonlinear dynamics and the flow of energy and matter. However, the proposed technical systems do not yet formally exist as products or mature technologies. Their potential applications are therefore experimentally examined within a design context as architectural “projects”—an established way of considering proposals that have not yet been realized, like an extended hypothesis. Exemplary design-led projects are introduced, such as The Hylozoic Ground and Future Venice, which aim to “discover”, rather than “solve”, challenges to examine a set of possibilities that have not yet been resolved. The value of such exploration in design practice is in opening up a set of potential directions for further assessment before complex challenges are procedurally implemented.
Life2014, 4(3), 433-456; doi:10.3390/life4030433 - published 3 September 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: The filamentous cyanobacterium, Pseudanabaena, has been shown to produce reticulate patterns that are thought to be the result of its gliding motility. Similar fossilized structures found in the geological record constitute some of the earliest signs of life on Earth. It is difficult to tie these fossils, which are billions of years old, directly to the specific microorganisms that built them. Identifying the physicochemical conditions and microorganism properties that lead microbial mats to form macroscopic structures can lead to a better understanding of the conditions on Earth at the dawn of life. In this article, a cell-based model is used to simulate the formation of reticulate patterns in cultures of Pseudanabaena. A minimal system of long and flexible trichomes capable of gliding motility is shown to be sufficient to produce stable patterns consisting of a network of streams. Varying model parameters indicate that systems with little to no cohesion, high trichome density and persistent movement are conducive to reticulate pattern formation, in conformance with experimental observations.