Survival and DNA Damage in Plant Seeds Exposed for 558 and 682 Days outside the International Space Station
For life to survive outside the biosphere, it must be protected from UV light and other radiation by exterior shielding or through sufficient inherent resistance to survive without protection. We tested the plausibility of inherent resistance in plant seeds, reporting in a previous paper that Arabidopsis thaliana and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) seeds exposed for 558 days outside the International Space Station (ISS) germinated and developed into fertile plants after return to Earth. We have now measured structural genetic damage in tobacco seeds from this EXPOSE-E experiment by quantitatively amplifying a segment of an antibiotic resistance gene, nptII, inserted into the chloroplast genome. We also assessed the survival of the antibiotic resistance encoded by nptII, using marker rescue in a soil bacterium. Chloroplast DNA damage occurred, but morphological mutants were not detected among the survivors. In a second, longer mission (EXPOSE-R), a nearly lethal exposure was received by Arabidopsis seeds. Comparison between a ground simulation, lacking UV<200nm, and fully exposed seeds in space indicated severe damage from these short wavelengths and again suggested that DNA degradation was not limiting seed survival. To test UV resistance in long-lived, larger seeds, we exposed Arabidopsis, tobacco, and morning glory seeds in the laboratory to doses of UV254nm, ranging as high as 2420 MJ m-2. Morning glory seeds resisted this maximum dose, which killed tobacco and Arabidopsis. We thus confirm that a naked plant seed could survive UV exposures during direct transfer from Mars to Earth and suggest that seeds with a more protective seed coat (e.g., morning glory) should survive much longer space travel.