Alien Life-Detection Device Passes Key Test in Mars-Like Arctic Conditions
Using new techniques and a small, lightweight package of miniature instruments and a DNA sequencer, then-postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jacqueline Goordial and a team of scientists successfully detected microbes in the cold and dry environment of the Arctic.
"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," Goordial said. "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."
Speaking about the location choice, Goordial explained that "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 from the North Pole as a Mars analog to take samples and test our methods." The study showed for the first time that testing for life with the instruments in the extreme environment is possible. In addition to detecting microbial activity, the researchers were able to isolate microorganisms that have never been cultured before.
Study co-author Professor Lyle Whyte says that finding DNA in the permafrost of Mars would provide "unambiguous evidence" of life, but the sequencer is the key.
"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," Goordial said.
Before throwing the package on the next shuttle to Mars, the team will have to make a few changes. "Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study," Whyte said, "while life-detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic...The DNA sequencer also needs higher accuracy and durability to withstand the long timescales required for planetary missions."