Arctic Research Technique Could Help Detect Life on Mars

Saturday, 20 January 2018 - 12:26PM
Space
Mars
Alien Life
Saturday, 20 January 2018 - 12:26PM
Arctic Research Technique Could Help Detect Life on Mars
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Searching for signs of life on Mars is no easy task, for lots of fairly obvious reasons. Testing out any possible strategy is tough when the potential life would almost surely be microscopic, and under the surface of an entirely different planet.

But a good warmup is to try these life-detecting strategies in a spot that's similar to Mars, but not so far away and with bacteria to spare lying around. This spot would be the Arctic - we've already found plenty of ice on the Red Planet, and it's not too different from the most northern points of Canada, close to the North Pole. This isn't to say that Canada is like Mars, but there's enough permafrost that northern Canada's a little like Mars.

It's here that a group of scientists from McGill University in Montreal are testing out a new technique for detecting life. According to a paper they recently published in Frontiers in Microbiotics, the team used a number of tools including a handheld DNA sequencing device called an Oxford Nanopore MinION to not just detect, but identify bacterial organisms on the spot, saving them the trouble of having to transport the findings to a lab and wait for results.



And if it worked in the Arctic, there's no reason (at least, not on paper) why this shouldn't work on Mars, assuming there's anything there to find, and assuming the device can be transported there. Dr. Jacqueline Goordial, an author on the study, said the following about why they came to the Arctic for such Mars-related reasons:

Opening quote
"Mars is a very cold and dry planet, with a permafrost terrain that looks a lot like what we find in the Canadian high Arctic. For this reason, we chose a site about 900 km [560 miles] from the North Pole as a Mars analog to take samples and test our methods."
Closing quote


Part of the reason this could be significant is because, despite NASA's interest in looking for signs of bacteria on Mars, most of their current methods involve searching for habitable locations or signs that life may have passed through an area. In other words, they look for indirect signs that point to life, because the tools needed to directly sequence possible life can get complex, and the rovers have plenty of other things to study.

But since Goordial and her team had such success in the Arctic with tiny, miniaturized tools, it could make it a lot easier to move this technology to Mars for a more thorough search. Goordial continues:

Opening quote
"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. 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.

Successful detection of nucleic acids in Martian permafrost samples would provide unambiguous evidence of life on another world. However, the presence of DNA alone doesn't tell you much about the state of an organism - it could be dormant or dead, for example. By using the DNA sequencer with the other methodology in our platform, we were able to first find active life, and then identify it and analyze its genomic potential, that is, the kinds of functional genes it has."
Closing quote


Nonetheless, it isn't entirely ready for use on other planets just yet. Despite their success, the whole process required lots of humans to make sure everything went smoothly, and Martian exploration is currently managed by unmanned probes and rovers like Curiosity.

But perhaps in the near future, when NASA or other companies like SpaceX actually manage to send humans to the surface of Mars, tools like this would be simple and easy to take along with them, giving them another reason to dig around in Martian ice.


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