Bacillus subtilis Spores on Artificial Meteorites Survive Hypervelocity Atmospheric Entry: Implications for Lithopanspermia
An important but untested aspect of the lithopanspermia hypothesis is that microbes situated on or within meteorites could survive hypervelocity entry from space through Earth's atmosphere. The use of high-altitude sounding rockets to test this notion was explored. Granite samples permeated with spores of Bacillus subtilis strain WN511 were attached to the exterior telemetry module of a sounding rocket and launched from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico into space, reaching maximum atmospheric entry velocity of 1.2 km/s. Maximum recorded temperature during the flight was measured at 145°C. The surfaces of the post-flight granite samples were swabbed and tested for recovery and survival of WN511 spores, using genetic markers and the unique DNA fingerprint of WN511 as recovery criteria. Spore survivors were isolated at high frequency, ranging from 1.2% to 4.4% compared with ground controls, from all surfaces except the forward-facing surface. Sporulation-defective mutants were noted among the spaceflight survivors at high frequency (4%). These experiments constitute the first report of spore survival to hypervelocity atmospheric transit, and indicate that sounding rocket flights can be used to model the high-speed atmospheric entry of bacteria-laden artificial meteorites.