Characterisation of Growth and Ultrastructural Effects of the Xanthoria elegans Photobiont After 1.5 Years of Space Exposure on the International Space Station

Abstract

The lichen Xanthoria elegans has been exposed to space and simulated Mars-analogue environment in the Lichen and Fungi Experiment (LIFE) on the EXPOSE-E facility at the International Space Station (ISS). This long-term exposure of 559 days tested the ability of various organisms to cope with either low earth orbit (LEO) or Mars-analogue conditions, such as vacuum, Mars-analogue atmosphere, rapid temperature cycling, cosmic radiation of up to 215 ± 16 mGy, and insolation of accumulated doses up to 4.87 GJm−2, including up to 0.314 GJm−2 of UV irradiation. In a previous study, X. elegans demonstrated considerable resistance towards these conditions by means of photosynthetic activity as well as by post-exposure metabolic activity of 50–80 % in the algal and 60–90 % in the fungal symbiont (Brandt et al. Int J Astrobiol 14(3):411–425, 2015). The two objectives of the present study were complementary: First, to verify the high post-exposure viability by using a qualitative cultivation assay. Second, to characterise the cellular damages by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) which were caused by the space and Mars-analogue exposure conditions of LIFE. Since the algal symbiont of lichens is considered as the more susceptible partner (de Vera and Ott 2010), the analyses focused on the photobiont. The study demonstrated growth and proliferation of the isolated photobiont after all exposure conditions of LIFE. The ultrastructural analysis of the algal cells provided an insight to cellular damages caused by long-term exposure and highlighted that desiccation-induced breakdown of cellular integrity is more pronounced under the more severe space vacuum than under Mars-analogue atmospheric conditions. In conclusion, desiccation-induced damages were identified as a major threat to the photobiont of X. elegans. Nonetheless, a fraction of the photobiont cells remained cultivable after all exposure conditions tested in LIFE.

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Abbreviations

ISS:

International Space Station

LEO:

low Earth orbit

LIFE:

Lichen and Fungi Experiment

MGR:

Mission Ground Reference

T:

transmission

TEM:

transmission electron microscopy

UV:

ultraviolet radiation

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude to the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) for funding the work of Annette Brandt (50BW1216) and J.-P. de Vera (50WB0614). Our special thanks are due to ESA and to the simulation facilities at DLR Cologne, especially Elke Rabbow, for MGR simulation, sample integration, and for invaluable advice. We would also like to thank Joachim Meeßen for stimulating and critical discussions. Moreover, we thank the anonymous reviewers for constructive feedback.

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Correspondence to Sieglinde Ott.

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Paper presented at the 14th European Astrobiology Conference (EANA 2014) held 13–16 October 2014 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

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Brandt, A., Posthoff, E., de Vera, JP. et al. Characterisation of Growth and Ultrastructural Effects of the Xanthoria elegans Photobiont After 1.5 Years of Space Exposure on the International Space Station. Orig Life Evol Biosph 46, 311–321 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11084-015-9470-1

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Keywords

  • Astrobiology
  • Expose-E
  • Life
  • Lichen
  • Space conditions
  • Mars-analogue conditions