Bacterial Motility As a Biosignature: Tests at Icy Moon Analogue Sites

Friday, 19 December 2014
Chris Lindensmith1, Jay L Nadeau2, Jody W. Deming3, Roman Stocker4, Emilio Graff5, Eugene Serabyn1, J. Kent Wallace1, Kurt Liewer1 and Jonas Kuhn1, (1)NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States, (2)McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada, (3)University of Washington Seattle Campus, Seattle, United States, (4)Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States, (5)California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Extraterrestrial life in our Solar System, if present, is almost certain to be microbial. Methods and technologies for unambiguous detection of living or extinct microorganisms are needed for life-detection missions to the Jovian and Saturnian moons, where liquid water is known to exist. Our research focuses specifically on microbial meaningful motion as a biosignature—“waving crowds” at the micron scale. Digital Holographic Microscopy (DHM) is an excellent tool for unambiguous identification of bacterial and protozoal swimming, even in the presence of turbidity, drift, and currents. The design of a holographic instrument with bacteria scale resolution was described in the previous talk. In this presentation, we will illustrate the design challenges for construction of a field instrument for extreme environments and space, and present plans for scientific investigations at analogue sites for the coming season.

The challenges of creating a field instrument involve performance trade-offs, the ability to operate at extreme temperatures, and handling large volumes of data. A fully autonomous instrument without external cables or power is also desirable, and this is something that previous holographic instruments have not achieved. The primary issues for space exploration are identification of a laser and drive electronics that are qualified for the expected radiation environments of the moons around gas giant planets.

Tests in Earth analogue environments will establish performance parameters as well as answer scientific questions that traditional microscopic techniques cannot. Specifically, we will visit a Greenland field site to determine whether or not microorganisms are motile within the brine-filled interior network of sea ice, and if they can be autonomously tracked using the instrument. Motility within the liquid phase of a frozen matrix has been hypothesized to explain how bacteria contribute to the biogeochemical signatures detected in ice, but observational evidence of motility in natural samples at subzero temperatures does not exist. Complementing tests for bacterial motility in ice-brines, we will also test for motility in the subzero waters directly beneath the ice, where motility has long been suspected but also never observed.