Bacterial Utilisation Of Aliphatic Organics: Is the Dwarf Planet Ceres Habitable?

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
February 7, 2023
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Bacterial Utilisation Of Aliphatic Organics: Is the Dwarf Planet Ceres Habitable?

The regolith environment and associated organic material on Ceres is analogous to environments that existed on Earth 3–4 billion years ago.

This has implications not only for abiogenesis and the theory of transpermia, but it provides context for developing a framework to contrast the limits of Earth’s biosphere with extraterrestrial environments of interest.

In this study, substrate utilisation by the ice-associated bacterium Colwellia hornerae was examined with respect to three aliphatic organic hydrocarbons that may be present on Ceres: dodecane, isobutyronitrile, and dioctyl-sulphide. Following inoculation into a phyllosilicate regolith spiked with a hydrocarbon (1% or 20% organic concentration wt%), cell density, electron transport activity, oxygen consumption, and the production of ATP, NADPH, and protein in C. hornerae was monitored for a period of 32 days. Microbial growth kinetics were correlated with changes in bioavailable carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur.

We provide compelling evidence that C. hornerae can survive and grow by utilising isobutyronitrile and, in particular, dodecane. Cellular growth, electron transport activity, and oxygen consumption increased significantly in dodecane at 20 wt% compared to only minor growth at 1 wt%.

Importantly, the reduction in total carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur observed at 20 wt% is attributed to biotic, rather than abiotic, processes. This study illustrates that short-term bacterial incubation studies using exotic substrates provide a useful indicator of habitability.

We suggest that replicating the regolith environment of Ceres warrants further study and that this dwarf planet could be a valid target for future exploratory missions.

by Sahan A. Jayasinghe,Fraser Kennedy,Andrew McMinn, Andrew Martin

Bacterial Utilisation of Aliphatic Organics: Is the Dwarf Planet Ceres Habitable?, Life (open access)


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻