The genetic material DNA can survive a flight through space and re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere — and still pass on genetic information. A team of scientists from UZH obtained these astonishing results during an experiment on the TEXUS-49 research rocket mission.
Applied to the outer shell of the payload section of a rocket using pipettes, small, double-stranded DNA molecules flew into space from Earth and back again. After the launch, space flight, re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and landing, the so-called plasmid DNA molecules were still found on all the application points on the rocket from the TEXUS-49 mission. And this was not the only surprise: For the most part, the DNA salvaged was even still able to transfer genetic information to bacterial and connective tissue cells. “This study provides experimental evidence that the DNA’s genetic information is essentially capable of surviving the extreme conditions of space and the re-entry into Earth’s dense atmosphere,” says study head Professor Oliver Ullrich from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anatomy.
Various scientists believe that DNA could certainly reach us from outer space as Earth is not insulated: in extraterrestrial material made of dust and meteorites, for instance, around 100 tons of which hits our planet every day.
Recall that life got started on Earth, we are told, quite early soon after the planet cooled. Despite the immense specified complexity of life. No current theory of origin of life on Earth seem well founded. Maybe this research direction is worth considering, provided we are prepared to see life as information, not accident.
See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (origin of life)
Sounding rockets represent an excellent platform for testing the influence of space conditions during the passage of Earth’s atmosphere and re-entry on biological, physical and chemical experiments for astrobiological purposes. We designed a robust functionality biomarker assay to analyze the biological effects of suborbital spaceflights prevailing during ballistic rocket flights. During the TEXUS-49 rocket mission in March 2011, artificial plasmid DNA carrying a fluorescent marker (enhanced green fluorescent protein: EGFP) and an antibiotic resistance cassette (kanamycin/neomycin) was attached on different positions of rocket exterior; (i) circular every 90 degree on the outer surface concentrical of the payload, (ii) in the grooves of screw heads located in between the surface application sites, and (iii) on the surface of the bottom side of the payload. Temperature measurements showed two major peaks at 118 and 130̊C during the 780 seconds lasting flight on the inside of the recovery module, while outer gas temperatures of more than 1000̊C were estimated on the sample application locations. Directly after retrieval and return transport of the payload, the plasmid DNA samples were recovered. Subsequent analyses showed that DNA could be recovered from all application sites with a maximum of 53% in the grooves of the screw heads. We could further show that up to 35% of DNA retained its full biological function, i.e., mediating antibiotic resistance in bacteria and fluorescent marker expression in eukariotic cells. These experiments show that our plasmid DNA biomarker assay is suitable to characterize the environmental conditions affecting DNA during an atmospheric transit and the re-entry and constitute the first report of the stability of DNA during hypervelocity atmospheric transit indicating that sounding rocket flights can be used to model the high-speed atmospheric entry of organics-laden artificial meteorites. Open access – Cora S. Thiel, Svantje Tauber, Andreas Schütte, Burkhard Schmitz, Harald Nuesse, Ralf Möller, Oliver Ullrich. Functional Activity of Plasmid DNA after Entry into the Atmosphere of Earth Investigated by a New Biomarker Stability Assay for Ballistic Spaceflight Experiments. PLoS ONE, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112979
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