Aqueous solutions on Mars are theorized to contain very different ion compositions than those on Earth. To determine the effect of such solutions on typical environmental micro-organisms, which could be released from robotic spacecraft or human exploration activity, we investigated the resistance of Sphingomonas desiccabilis to brines that simulate the composition of martian aqueous environments. S. desiccabilis is a desiccation-resistant, biofilm-forming microbe found in desert crusts. The viability of cells in both planktonic and biofilm forms was measured after exposure to simulated martian brines. Planktonic cells showed a loss of viability over the course of several hours in almost all of the seven brines tested. Biofilms conferred greater resistance to all the brines, including those with low water activity and pH, but even cells in biofilms showed a complete loss of viability in <6 h in the harsher brines and in <2 days in the less harsh brines. One brine, however, allowed the microbes to maintain viability over several days, despite having a water activity and pH lower and ionic strength higher than brines that reduced viability over the same timescales, suggesting important ion-specific effects. These data show that biofilm-forming cells have a greater capacity to resist martian aqueous extremes, but that evaporative or deliquescent brines are likely to be destructive to many organisms over relatively short timescales, with implications for the habitability of Mars and for micro-organisms dispersed by robotic or human explorers.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This research was supported by the UK Science Technology and Facilities Council under Grant ST/M001261/1.