Searching for life in the outer space is a man’s endeavor since the first space shuttle left earth’s atmosphere. Entering new research fields together with astrobiologist Dr. Ruth-Sophie Taubner and microbiologist Dr. Mag. Simon Rittmann from the University Vienna, led our research group (DI Patricia Pappenreiter and Prof. Dr. Christian Paulik) to Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, where water geysers could serve as a potential habitat for exoterrestrial life. The Cassini already orbited Enceladus several times and measured the existence of organic molecules such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), formaldehyde (H2CO) etc. in its plumes. Living organisms would meet challenges such as toxic compounds (H2CO, CO), as well as high pressure and temperatures beyond 60 °C in this environment. On earth, methanogenic archaea are potential organisms, which could thrive under such harsh conditions, as they are actually found as habitants of hydro-thermal vents.

Within this project, we were able to test the methanogen Methanothermococcus okinawensis under putative Enceladus-like conditions and exposed the strain to pressure levels up to 90 bar in our high‑pressure laboratories. In these experiments, M. okinawensis did not only survive under these harsh conditions, the strain even grew and produced methane. Our findings were published in an article in Nature Communications as “Biological methane production under putative Enceladus-like conditions”.


©Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

This project is funded by the FFG.