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Chinese Science Bulletin, Volume 65 , Issue 14 : 1297-1304(2020) https://doi.org/10.1360/TB-2019-0805

Life in the near space and implications for astrobiology

Wei Lin 1,2,*
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  • ReceivedDec 9, 2019
  • AcceptedMar 25, 2020
  • PublishedApr 8, 2020

Abstract

Near space is a region that lies between 20 and 100 km above sea level, which includes the major region of the stratosphere, the mesosphere and the lower thermosphere. Near space comprises a harsher physical environment which contains high ultraviolet light levels, subzero temperatures, desiccation and low atmospheric pressure, in comparison to the low-altitude atmosphere. This provides a unique analogue environment that resembles the surface conditions of Mars, the high-altitude atmospheric environments of Venus and the high radiation environments of early Earth. Microorganisms can enter the lower atmosphere and the near space through weather systems like wind, geological activities like earthquake and volcanic eruption and human activities like air transportation. In recent years, methodological and technological advances have deepened our understanding of the diversity and survival strategies of organisms in near space. Payload systems and methods for exposing organisms and for in situ collecting microbial samples in near space have been designed and developed. Consequently, a growing number of studies investigate the microbial survival strategies in near space by exposing model microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, archaea and yeasts) to near space extreme environments through flight exposures. A diverse group of microorganisms have been isolated, identified and characterized from near space, suggesting that it may potentially contain a vast unknown microbial biosphere. The dispersal of life in near space may play an essential role in shaping global patterns of microbial biodiversity and biogeography. The ability of these microbes to survive under near space extreme environments has prompted researchers from different disciplines to study them to better understand their diversity, distribution and survival strategies. Near space not only provides great opportunities to investigate some basic biological questions such as the biological effects of radiations, but it also has a wide application potential since microorganisms in near space, as extremophiles, are a valuable source of a variety of new genes and enzymes. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, habitability and future of life on Earth and beyond in the context of cosmic evolution. One promising research field in astrobiology is planetary analogue research which conducts experiments and tests in specific environments on Earth that have physical/chemical similarities to the extraterrestrial environments. Analogue research has offered new insights into the planetary habitability and the search for extraterrestrial life. Near space as a natural laboratory can provide hard evidence for important astrobiology topics including the limits to life on Earth, the upper boundary of Earth’s biosphere, the possibility of interplanetary transport of life, the assessment of panspermia hypothesis and the planetary protection. With the recent development of the Chinese Space Station and deep-space exploration, the study of near space biology will provide support for future space station related research and will further promote the development of astrobiology in China. Here I review the major advances in biodiversity in near space and their survival strategies, with emphases on key astrobiology questions associated with the research of near space. I also highlight major challenges that will be necessary to address in future research and discuss possible perspectives in the study of near space biology.


Funded by

中国科学院A类战略性先导科技专项(XDA17010501)


Acknowledgment

感谢中国科学院水生生物研究所王高鸿研究员和中国科学院地质与地球物理研究所田兰香副研究员对文章初稿提出的意见; 感谢中国科学院地质与地球物理研究所潘永信院士在研究过程中给予的建议和指导; 感谢“鸿鹄专项”HH-19-2和HH-19-9飞行实验全体参研人员.


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  • Figure 1

    Schematic representation of the cycle of microorganisms in the lower atmosphere and the near space. Near space is a region between 20 and 100 km above sea level. It lies above the troposphere (from ground level to about 8−15 km) and includes the major region of the stratosphere (from the tropopause to about 50 km above sea level), the entire mesosphere (from about 50 to 85 km above sea level) and the lower thermosphere (from about 85 to 500 km above sea level)

  • Figure 2

    The balloon-based biology exposure payload developed under the Scientific Experiment System in Near Space (SENSE) Program in the near space environment over Qinghai Province, China (~32 km above sea level)

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