Biofilms Confer Resistance to Simulated Extra-terrestrial Geochemical Extremes

Status Report From: bioRxiv
Posted: Friday, August 18, 2017

Adam H Stevens, Delma Childers, Mark Fox-Powell, Charles S Cockell


This article is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed [what does this mean?].


Biofilms improve microbes' resistance to a variety of extreme physical and chemical conditions on Earth. The discovery of putative aqueous environments on other planetary bodies such as Mars motivates an interest in understanding the viability of life, and the potential role of biofilms, in previously unexplored geochemical extremes. We investigated the loss of viability of planktonic cells and biofilms of Sphingomonas desiccabilis (a Gram-negative, desiccation resistant, soil crust-forming organism) to simulated Martian brines. These brines were produced from geochemical modelling of past aqueous environments on Mars, and their high sulfate concentrations make them different to most terrestrial brines, although similar briny environments have been found in locations such as the Basque Lakes in Canada or in deep subsurface groundwater systems. Biofilms grown on basaltic scoria were subjected to the simulated martian brines and the viability of cells was measured over time and compared to equivalent planktonic cultures. Crystal violet assay was used to measure how the biomass of the biofilms changed over time in response to the brines. While certain brines were highly hostile to microbial viability, we found that biofilms that were desiccated prior to being treated with brines maintained viability over a longer treatment period when compared to planktonic cells. Our results show that biofilms confer short-term protection to the harsh osmotic, ionic, and acidic conditions of Mars-relevant brines. However, in the most extreme simulated brines, even biofilms eventually lost viability. By demonstrating that biofilms confer protection to conditions that are potentially analogous to current day recurrent slope lineae (thought to be produced by the flow of briny fluids) on Mars, our results show that contaminant biofilm-forming microorganisms may have a greater chance of surviving in so-called "Special Regions" on Mars, with implications for planetary protection in missions that aim to explore these regions.


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