Biochemist and astrobiologist Tetyana Milojevic brings space returned microorganisms to the University of Vienna. As researcher of the Faculty of Chemistry she and her team investigate the microbial survivability in the Universe and extraterrestrial materials-microbial interactions. Tetyana blogs on the occasion of the event “Biology in outer space” offered by subject-related initiatives of the Alumni Association.
Life in the Universe – present, past and future – was a topic of a panel discussion held on November 22nd 2017 at the University of Vienna. Is there life in outer space? How to detect and investigate habitability of the other planets? Can life origin be external, outside of the Earth and what are the future directions in Mars exploration? These were the main questions discussed with a broad public by a panel of scientists consisting of 3 other astrobiologists and me: Gernot Grömer, Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF), Innsbruck; Helmut Lammer, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Space Research Institute, Graz and Ruth Taubner, Department of Ecogenomics and System Biology, University of Vienna.
Other forms of life
In order to accomplish the puzzle of life in the Universe, we might want to know how and where exactly we can search for signs of life that ever existed or may still exist on other planetary bodies such as Mars. While it seems to be still debatable to come up with a clear definition of life, we are in a perfect position to look for fingerprints of life left behind living microorganisms in mineral records. The question of biomarkers and biosignatures was actively raised by the panel members in Small Ceremonial Chamber of the main building of the University of Vienna. Thanks to humor and developed professional skills of moderator Günther Paal (Gunkl), the broad audience could enjoy the debates if we, humans, are prepared to be faced with other forms of life, which are not yet known here on Earth and what would be the instructions upon this event. :-)
Gernot Grömer introduced a bright spectrum of an exciting space interdisciplinary research ranging from a design of the spacesuit for future human Mars missions to a fieldwork at Mars analogue site in the northern Sahara. The physico-chemical constrains of planetary habitability were illuminated by Helmut Lammer, a leading scientist in origin and early evolution of planetary atmospheres. The astrobiological aspect of methanogens in light of potential habitability of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus was highlighted by Ruth Taubner. These cold-loving and methane-producing extremophiles (psychrophilic methanogens) are probable the only known peculiar terrestrial microorganisms that could thrive on an icy moon. The “Extremophiles/Space Biochemistry” group of mine investigates molecular mechanisms of microbial survivability in outer space. Several extremophilic microorganisms are known to tolerate the drastic and harsh conditions of open space and the work with space-returned samples can uncover microbial strategies to survive an interplanetary transfer across the Universe. The study of microbial interactions with extraterrestrial material is another research line of our group to understand the early evolution of life on Earth and in the Universe.
The voices of astrobiology under the roof of the University of Vienna were heard on that evening – thanks to the great organizational help of “Biology Alumni” Association. The activities of “Biology Alumni” are supported by about a dozen volunteer biologists and directed to launch new initiatives and projects for the future of the University and for the next generation of graduates.
To a large extent, the study of astrobiology gives new keys to understanding the appearance of life on Earth. Notably, research on Biology in Space provides crucial knowledge for space exploration missions, crew healthcare concerns and future space colonization programs.
I had a childhood dream to study cosmic microbiology, however, this branch of research was absolutely new at the time of my school graduation and thus not really available for university studying. Therefore, I chose rather biochemistry to gain the knowledge of chemistry in the living entity and worked out my skills in various biological systems until the professional path brought me where I am now. So what do I do since my school graduation 20 years ago? I try to send the microbes to outer space, to get them back on Earth (preferentially alive) and to understand how they manage to survive their long-termed and extreme space journey. And we feed our special microorganisms with real and synthetic extraterrestrial materials… enriching the world market of biosignatures for life-hunting space missions. Well, all the roots come from the childhood and all the dreams eventually come true!