Eukaryotic colonization of micrometer-scale cracks in Rocks: A "microfluidics" experiment using naturally weathered meteorites from the Nullarbor Plain, Australia

Alastair W. Tait, Emma J. Gagen, Siobhan A. Wilson, Andrew G. Tomkins, Gordon Southam

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The advent of microfluidics has revolutionized the way we understand how microorganisms propagate through microporous spaces. Here, we apply this understanding to the study of how endolithic environmental microorganisms colonize the interiors of sterile rock. The substrates used for our study are stony meteorites from the Nullarbor Plain, Australia; a semiarid limestone karst that provides an ideal setting for preserving meteorites. Periodic flooding of the Nullarbor provides a mechanism by which microorganisms and exogenous nutrients may infiltrate meteorites. Our laboratory experiments show that environmental microorganisms reach depths greater than 400 μm by propagating through existing brecciation, passing through cracks no wider than the diameter of a resident cell (i.e., ∼5 μm). Our observations are consistent with the propagation of these eukaryotic cells via growth and cell division rather than motility. The morphology of the microorganisms changed as a result of propagation through micrometer-scale cracks, as has been observed previously for bacteria on microfluidic chips. It has been suggested that meteorites could have served as preferred habitats for microorganisms on ancient Mars. Based on our results, the depths reached by terrestrial microorganisms within meteorites would be sufficient to mitigate against the harmful effects of ionizing radiation, such as UV light, in Earth's deserts and potentially on Mars, if similar processes of microbial colonization had once been active there. Thus, meteorites landing in ancient lakes on Mars, that later dried out, could have been some of the last inhabited locations on the surface, serving as refugia before the planet's surface became inhospitable. Finally, our observations suggest that terrestrial microorganisms can colonize very fine cracks within meteorites (and potentially spaceships and rovers) on unexpectedly short timescales, with important implications for both recognition of extraterrestrial life in returned geological samples and planetary protection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)364-374
Number of pages11
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • Endolith
  • Eukaryotes
  • First colonizer
  • Meteorite
  • Microfluidics
  • Nullarbor Plain

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