Reasons to Believe

Can Tiny Organisms Survive Hostile Space?

TNRTB Archive - Retained for reference information

Abundant scientific evidence establishes that life originated on Earth in a geologic instant (no time).1 Additionally, life arose without benefit of any prebiotic building block molecules (no soup), and without any natural mechanism to produce amino acids and sugars with only one-handedness. However, rather than credit God, many origin-of-life researchers claim that life arrived on Earth from outer space.

Researchers from the European Space Agency conducted the first long-term astrobiology experiments on board the International Space Station to test the feasibility of life arriving from interstellar space (panspermia, or seeds of life everywhere). This work would also test lithopanspermia hypotheses, which suggest that impact-ejected rocks could transfer life through space from one planet to another. Their EXPOSE-E mission subjected simple organic compounds, amino acids, microorganisms, spores, seeds, and lichens to 1.5 years of the hostile-to-life vacuum and radiation conditions present outside the Space Station.2 Because of the Space Station’s proximity, temperature ranges were limited to -12°C to +40°C (10°F to 104°F). After the 18-month period, the experimental package was returned to Earth for analysis of the survival rates.

Researchers found that some, but not all, of the lichens collected from extremely hostile regions on Earth were also “partially resistant” to the more extreme conditions of outer space. Another research team found a similar result for tobacco seeds.3 Both results were anticipated since the chosen lichens and tobacco seeds were known to be highly resistant to UV radiation.

Spores of Bacillus subtilis, the most UV-resistant bacterium, did not fare as well. Solar extraterrestrial radiation wiped them out, though spores subjected to conditions comparable to Mars’ surface did survive at significant levels. In both cases, researchers noted a much enhanced mutation rate in the spores’ DNA as well as high levels of protein damage, oxidative stress, and cell envelope stress.

Amino acids fared poorly as well. Only the simplest amino acids (glycine, alanine, and valine) showed high survival rates, though all (of the 20) amino acids showed a doubling to a tripling of survival rates when protected by meteoritic dust.

Eighteen months in space (about 200 miles from Earth) falls far short of the millions of years known to be required for transport from another planetary system. Furthermore, once outside the solar system, organisms and biological building-block molecules would be subjected to the full brunt of deadly cosmic radiation. As previously demonstrated, panspermia and lithopanspermia cannot explain how life arrived on Earth.4

What EXPOSE-E does show is how even Earth’s harshest nooks and crannies are crammed with life––life wonderfully designed to continually repair the damage wrought by extreme conditions. As Isaiah notes, [“He did not create it [Earth] to be empty; but formed it to be inhabited,”] and the Psalmist declares, “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Subjects: Life on Other Planets

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.

1. Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004).

2. Special Collection on EXPOSE-E Mission, Astrobiology 12 (May 2012). Results from the mission are published in 14 papers. Those used for this article are on pages 412–28.

3. David Tepfer, Andreja Zalar, and Sydney Leach, “Survival of Plant Seeds, Their UV Screens, and nptll DNA for 18 Months Outside the International Space Station,” Astrobiology 12 (May 2012):517–28.

4. Rana and Ross, 202–4.