Whole Lichen Thalli Survive Exposure to Space Conditions: Results of Lithopanspermia Experiment with Aspicilia fruticulosa
The Lithopanspermia space experiment was launched in 2007 with the European Biopan facility for a 10-day spaceflight on board a Russian Foton retrievable satellite. Lithopanspermia included for the first time the vagrant lichen species Aspicilia fruticulosa from Guadalajara steppic highlands (Central Spain), as well as other lichen species. During spaceflight, the samples were exposed to selected space conditions, that is, the space vacuum, cosmic radiation, and different spectral ranges of solar radiation (λ ≥ 110, ≥ 200, ≥ 290, or ≥ 400 nm, respectively). After retrieval, the algal and fungal metabolic integrity of the samples were evaluated in terms of chlorophyll a fluorescence, ultrastructure, and CO2 exchange rates. Whereas the space vacuum and cosmic radiation did not impair the metabolic activity of the lichens, solar electromagnetic radiation, especially in the wavelength range between 100 and 200 nm, caused reduced chlorophyll a yield fluorescence; however, there was a complete recovery after 72 h of reactivation. All samples showed positive rates of net photosynthesis and dark respiration in the gas exchange experiment. Although the ultrastructure of all flight samples showed some probable stress-induced changes (such as the presence of electron-dense bodies in cytoplasmic vacuoles and between the chloroplast thylakoids in photobiont cells as well as in cytoplasmic vacuoles of the mycobiont cells), we concluded that A. fruticulosa was capable of repairing all space-induced damage. Due to size limitations within the Lithopanspermia hardware, the possibility for replication on the sun-exposed samples was limited, and these first results on the resistance of the lichen symbiosis A. fruticulosa to space conditions and, in particular, on the spectral effectiveness of solar extraterrestrial radiation must be considered preliminary. Further testing in space and under space-simulated conditions will be required. Results of this study indicate that the quest to discern the limits of lichen symbiosis resistance to extreme environmental conditions remains open.