The final frontier

The final frontier

UF, German researchers studying bacteria in spacelike conditions

By Theresa Makrush

In the search for life on other planets, scientists want to be sure they are not detecting stowaway life forms from Earth.

That’s why researchers from UF and the German Aerospace Center, also know as DLR, met at the UF Proton Therapy Institute in May — to test whether certain harmless but hardy Earth microorganisms could survive a type of cosmic radiation encountered during interplanetary flight.

The space environment is filled with radiation, such as X-rays, gamma rays, protons, electrons and heavy ions. High-energy protons are the most abundant type of charged particle in deep space outside the Earth’s magnetic field. The proton accelerator used to produce therapeutic doses of radiation for cancer patients also can be used to simulate the conditions of outer space.

“Patients and visitors to the UF Proton Therapy Institute often remark that our treatment rooms look like something from the television series ‘Star Trek,’” said Stuart Klein, executive director of the institute. “The sophisticated science and engineering used every day in treating patients is awe-inspiring. This collaboration with UF, NASA and the DLR adds another level of significance to the truly unique resource we have here in Jacksonville.”

Working together on the research, funded in part by NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection, are Wayne Nicholson, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences astrobiologist who works from NASA’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center, and Ralf Moeller, a scientist from the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany.

They will study the effects of high-energy protons on two types of bacterial spores: Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus pumilus. These harmless bacteria are found in abundance on Earth and have survived past space expeditions.

“Future missions to other planets such as Mars are designed to look for life,” Nicholson said. “Earth is completely covered with life, and Mars life could be very different. We want to eliminate the possibility of forward contamination of Earth life to other planets. That way, if we do discover life on Mars, we will be confident that we have indeed found Martian life, not Earth life.”

The researchers plan to test the spores’ ability to withstand extended exposure to high-energy protons and study the bacteria’s remarkable ability to repair their DNA when damaged.