Image_1_Performance of Multiple Metagenomics Pipelines in Understanding Microbial Diversity of a Low-Biomass Spacecraft Assembly Facility.TIFF
NASA planetary protection (PP) requires an assessment of the biological contamination of the potential microbial burden on spacecraft destined to explore planetary bodies that may harbor signs of life, like Mars and Europa. To help meet these goals, the performance of multiple metagenomic pipelines were compared and assessed for their ability to detect microbial diversity of a low-biomass clean room environment used to build spacecraft destined to these planetary bodies. Four vendors were chosen to implement their own metagenomic analysis pipeline on the shotgun sequences retrieved from environmental surfaces in the relevant environments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. None of the vendors showed the same microbial profile patterns when analyzing same raw dataset since each vendor used different pipelines, which begs the question of the validity of a single pipeline to be recommended for future NASA missions. All four vendors detected species of interest, including spore-forming and extremotolerant bacteria, that have the potential to hitch-hike on spacecraft and contaminate the planetary bodies explored. Some vendors demonstrated through functional analysis of the metagenomes that the molecular mechanisms for spore-formation and extremotolerance were represented in the data. However, relative abundances of these microorganisms varied drastically between vendor analyses, questioning the ability of these pipelines to quantify the number of PP-relevant microorganisms on a spacecraft surface. Metagenomics offers tantalizing access to the genetic and functional potential of a microbial community that may offer NASA a viable method for microbial burden assays for planetary protection purposes. However, future development of technologies such as streamlining the processing of shotgun metagenome sequence data, long read sequencing, and all-inclusive larger curated and annotated microbial genome databases will be required to validate and translate relative abundances into an actionable assessment of PP-related microbes of interest. Additionally, the future development of machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques could help enhance the quality of these metagenomic analyses by providing more accurate identification of the genetic and functional potential of a microbial community.