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Astrobiology. 2013 Oct;13(10):981-90. doi: 10.1089/ast.2013.1074. Epub 2013 Oct 9.

Microbes in the upper atmosphere and unique opportunities for astrobiology research.

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NASA John F. Kennedy Space Center , Surface Systems Office, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.


Microbial taxa from every major biological lineage have been detected in Earth's upper atmosphere. The goal of this review is to communicate (1) relevant astrobiology questions that can be addressed with upper atmosphere microbiology studies and (2) available sampling methods for collecting microbes at extreme altitudes. Precipitation, mountain stations, airplanes, balloons, rockets, and satellites are all feasible routes for conducting aerobiology research. However, more efficient air samplers are needed, and contamination is also a pervasive problem in the field. Measuring microbial signatures without false positives in the upper atmosphere might contribute to sterilization and bioburden reduction methods for proposed astrobiology missions. Intriguingly, environmental conditions in the upper atmosphere resemble the surface conditions of Mars (extreme cold, hypobaria, desiccation, and irradiation). Whether terrestrial microbes are active in the upper atmosphere is an area of intense research interest. If, in fact, microbial metabolism, growth, or replication is achievable independent of Earth's surface, then the search for habitable zones on other worlds should be broadened to include atmospheres (e.g., the high-altitude clouds of Venus). Furthermore, viable cells in the heavily irradiated upper atmosphere of Earth could help identify microbial genes or enzymes that bestow radiation resistance. Compelling astrobiology questions on the origin of life (if the atmosphere synthesized organic aerosols), evolution (if airborne transport influenced microbial mutation rates and speciation), and panspermia (outbound or inbound) are also testable in Earth's upper atmosphere.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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