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Survival of Deinococcus geothermalis in Biofilms under Desiccation and Simulated Space and Martian Conditions
Biofilm formation represents a successful survival strategy for bacteria. In biofilms, cells are embedded in a matrix of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS). As they are often more stress-tolerant than single cells, biofilm cells might survive the conditions present in space and on Mars. To investigate this topic, the bacterium Deinococcus geothermalis was chosen as a model organism due to its tolerance toward desiccation and radiation. Biofilms cultivated on membranes and, for comparison, planktonically grown cells deposited on membranes were air-dried and exposed to individual stressors that included prolonged desiccation, extreme temperatures, vacuum, simulated martian atmosphere, and UV irradiation, and they were exposed to combinations of stressors that simulate space (desiccation + vacuum + UV) or martian (desiccation + Mars atmosphere + UV) conditions. The effect of sulfatic Mars regolith simulant on cell viability during stress was investigated separately. The EPS produced by the biofilm cells contained mainly polysaccharides and proteins. To detect viable but nonculturable (VBNC) cells, cultivation-independent viability indicators (membrane integrity, ATP, 16S rRNA) were determined in addition to colony counts. Desiccation for 2 months resulted in a decrease of culturability with minor changes of membrane integrity in biofilm cells and major loss of membrane integrity in planktonic bacteria. Temperatures between −25°C and +60°C, vacuum, and Mars atmosphere affected neither culturability nor membrane integrity in both phenotypes. Monochromatic (254 nm; ≥1 kJ m−2) and polychromatic (200–400 nm; >5.5 MJ m−2 for planktonic cells and >270 MJ m−2 for biofilms) UV irradiation significantly reduced the culturability of D. geothermalis but did not affect cultivation-independent viability markers, indicating the induction of a VBNC state in UV-irradiated cells. In conclusion, a substantial proportion of the D. geothermalis population remained viable under all stress conditions tested, and in most cases the biofilm form proved advantageous for surviving space and Mars-like conditions. Key Words: Biofilms—Desiccation—UV radiation—Mars—Lithopanspermia. Astrobiology 17, 431–447.