We Just Discovered a Revolutionary Tool to Find Aliens on Mars
The search for life on other planets is still pretty inefficient. While the vast majority of instruments on astrobiology missions are configured to look for habitable conditions, organic molecules and other signs of life, they provide only indirect evidence of life. On top of that, they are heavy, large, energy-draining pieces of equipment.
Now researchers from Canada's McGill University have demonstrated, for the first time, how existing technology can be used directly to discover life on Mars and other planets. Using miniaturized scientific instruments and new microbiology techniques, the study sought to identify and categorize microorganisms in the Canadian high Arctic, one of the most Mars-like atmospheres on Earth.
"The life-detection methods used here include (1) the cryo-iPlate for culturing microorganisms using diffusion of in situ nutrients into semi-solid media (2) a Microbial Activity Microassay (MAM) plate (BIOLOG Ecoplate) for detecting viable extant microorganisms through a colorimetric assay, and (3) the Oxford Nanopore MinION for nucleic acid detection and sequencing of environmental samples and the products of MAM plate and cryo-iPlate," the study says.
"The search for life is a major focus of planetary exploration, but there hasn't been direct life detection instrumentation on a mission since the '70s, during the Viking missions to Mars," study author Dr. Jacqueline Goordial told Phys.org. "We wanted to show a proof-of-concept that microbial life can be directly detected and identified using very portable, low-weight, and low-energy tools."
These miniature, low-cost and low-weight tools helped the team create a modular "life-detection platform" capable of culturing microorganisms from soil, evaluating microbial activity, and sequencing DNA/RNA.
"Our results demonstrated successful biosignature detection (DNA) using nanopore sequencing on Mars analog environmental samples, in conjunction with active life detection methods through cultivation of microorganisms and a colorimetric microbial activity assay in a highly remote and extreme terrestrial environment," the study concluded. "The platforms and methods outlined here are highly portable and offer the possibility to examine microbial ecology in real-time, in dynamic, and remote environments. Future planetary exploration life detection missions will likely not rely on a single instrument, rather a suite of instruments will need to be used in concert to confirm whether extant or relic life is present."
The researchers also conclude that before these tools can be ready for a flight mission, further work needs to be done. The lifetime of protein-based nanopores, for example, is not currently suitable for the long trip to Mars, Europa or Enceladus.
Synthetic nanopore sequencers are currently being developed through the NASA ColdTech program, though, which could offer a solution. They also emphasize the necessity of developing a strong robotic nucleic acid extraction platform. This would allow researchers to extract a sufficient amount of acid from samples in the low biomass of Mars and the icy moons.
Some researchers think that a window into discovering life on Mars lie in the unusual geological circumstances surrounding a newly formed island in Tonga. Meanwhile, Russian researchers of ionizing radiation may have proved that life is capable of surviving on the red planet for millions of years. NASA plans to bring a piece of Mars back home in 2020, marking the first time that Martian samples are studied on Earth.