Microplate readers and astrobiology: the SPECTROstar Nano helps understanding life in extreme environments

February 21, 2019

Prof Charles Cockell of The UK Centre for Astrobiology is focussed on understanding the effect of extreme conditions on the existence of life, based at University of Edinburgh and at the world’s first deep subsurface laboratory at Boulby Underground Laboratory. 

Image of Robert Mount
Dr Robert Mount
PhD, Managing Director

The Boulby laboratory is situated one kilometre underground in an active potash and salt mine located at Saltburn in Cleveland. The lab is designed and located deep underground to reduce background so serves as the ideal reference when studying the effects of radiation on the sustainability of life.

His study is focussed on microbes in extreme environments to further understand how they adapt and respond to such extremes, the effect on growth, biomarker preservation, and how they adapt to life in the extreme environments. One specific interest is radiation and the effect of exposure to or indeed absence of radiation on growth, asking questions such as is radiation detrimental to life or is low dose radiation actually beneficial? The key to this is to understand how microbes deal with and respond to cell or DNA damage caused by exposure to radiation.

To assist in answering these questions it is important to accurately quantify the effect such extreme conditions have on microbial growth. Prof Cockell’s research measures microbial growth kinetically using BMG LABTECH SPECTROstar Nanos. These instruments allow identical experiments above and below ground; with reproducible temperature control and shaking the Nanos can follow growth measuring absorbance at 600nm in 96 wells enabling different growth media and different strains to be easily run in parallel. Investigating growth kinetically producing growth curves provides significantly more detail as opposed to a simple growth - no growth answer such as lag phase, doubling rate and time to maximal growth.

The Boulby mine is an active salt mine and serves as a source of extremophiles specifically halophiles, the study of these organisms may help address the question of the possibility of life on other planets as they have evolved to live in environments of high salt and extremely low levels of water. Microbes adapted to grow in such extreme conditions may hold to key to identifying life other planets within the solar system that appear unable to support any form of life. 

An earlier study took to understand how micro-organisms adapt to extreme environments including extra-terrestrial, the EXPOSE project was designed to investigate if microbes could survive on rock held on the outside of the space station in a moisture free zero gravity environment and to assess the possibility of using microbes for future space missions to obtain minerals using bio-mining, which one day may help in the colonisation and sustaining of life on the moon and the planets beyond.