Survival of Plant Seeds, Their UV Screens, and nptII DNA for 18 Months Outside the International Space Station
AbstractThe plausibility that life was imported to Earth from elsewhere can be tested by subjecting life-forms to space travel. Ultraviolet light is the major liability in short-term exposures (Horneck et al., 2001), and plant seeds, tardigrades, and lichens—but not microorganisms and their spores—are candidates for long-term survival (Anikeeva et al., 1990; Sancho et al., 2007; Jönsson et al., 2008; de la Torre et al., 2010). In the present study, plant seeds germinated after 1.5 years of exposure to solar UV, solar and galactic cosmic radiation, temperature fluctuations, and space vacuum outside the International Space Station. Of the 2100 exposed wild-type Arabidopsis thaliana and Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco) seeds, 23% produced viable plants after return to Earth. Survival was lower in the Arabidopsis Wassilewskija ecotype and in mutants ( tt4-8 and fah1-2 ) lacking UV screens. The highest survival occurred in tobacco (44%). Germination was delayed in seeds shielded from solar light, yet full survival was attained, which indicates that longer space travel would be possible for seeds embedded in an opaque matrix. We conclude that a naked, seed-like entity could have survived exposure to solar UV radiation during a hypothetical transfer from Mars to Earth. Chemical samples of seed flavonoid UV screens were degraded by UV, but their overall capacity to absorb UV was retained. Naked DNA encoding the nptII gene (kanamycin resistance) was also degraded by UV. A fragment, however, was detected by the polymerase chain reaction, and the gene survived in space when protected from UV. Even if seeds do not survive, components ( e.g., their DNA) might survive transfer over cosmic distances. Key Words: Origin of life—Panspermia—Plant seeds—Flavonoid UV screens—DNA degradation—UV resistance—International Space Station. Astrobiology 12, 517–528.