To characterize the ATLO (Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations) environment of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, we analyzed 17 aluminum witness foils and two blanks for bacterial, archaeal, fungal, and arthropod DNA. Under NASA’s Planetary Protection guidelines, OSIRIS-REx is a Category II outbound, Category V unrestricted sample return mission. As a result, it has no bioburden restrictions. However, the mission does have strict organic contamination requirements to achieve its primary objective of returning pristine carbonaceous asteroid regolith to Earth. Its target, near-Earth asteroid (101955) Bennu, is likely to contain organic compounds that are biologically available. Therefore, it is useful to understand what organisms were present during ATLO as part of the larger contamination knowledge effort—even though it is unlikely that any of the organisms will survive the multi-year deep space journey. Even though these samples of opportunity were not collected or preserved for DNA analysis, we successfully amplified bacterial and archaeal DNA (16S rRNA gene) from 16 of the 17 witness foils containing as few as 7 ± 3 cells per sample. Fungal DNA (ITS1) was detected in 12 of the 17 witness foils. Despite observing arthropods in some of the ATLO facilities, arthropod DNA (COI gene) was not detected. We observed 1,009 bacterial and archaeal sOTUs (sub-operational taxonomic units, 100% unique) and 167 fungal sOTUs across all of our samples (25–84 sOTUs per sample). The most abundant bacterial sOTU belonged to the genus Bacillus. This sOTU was present in blanks and may represent contamination during sample handling or storage. The sample collected from inside the fairing just prior to launch contained several unique bacterial and fungal sOTUs that describe previously uncharacterized potential for contamination during the final phase of ATLO. Additionally, fungal richness (number of sOTUs) negatively correlates with the number of carbon-bearing particles detected on samples. The total number of fungal sequences positively correlates with total amino acid concentration. These results demonstrate that it is possible to use samples of opportunity to characterize the microbiology of low-biomass environments while also revealing the limitations imposed by sample collection and preservation methods not specifically designed with biology in mind.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Microbiology (medical)