Writing in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, they explain that just picking up on DNA fragments doesn’t tell you that much. Life may once have been there, but it might not be anymore.
Their portable low-cost lab, however, can not only detect and sequence DNA from both living and deceased critters, but it can also isolate individual extremophilic microorganisms and assess their activity.
Their pioneering trial experiments with Canadian extremophiles proved that both the signatures of life and life itself can be accurately detected and analyzed.
“The life detection platform we are trying to develop is in its very early stages, and at this point, we have really only shown proof of concept,” lead author Dr Jackie Goordial, a postdoctoral researcher now based at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, told IFLScience. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”
So although it's not ready to head into space just yet, this could represent the precursor to the equipment that reveals we aren’t alone after all.
Goordial tells us that there are several spots on Mars that she would point her new platform at, including “the reoccurring slope linnaea that may or may not be brine water flowing on Mars, the subsurface ice-cemented ground in the polar regions, or locations that may have been the site of past hydrothermal activity.
“These are all places that we know on Earth host extremophilic life.”
This study isn’t the first of its kind; plenty of others have recently headed to some of the coldest, harshest environments on Earth in order to conduct dry runs in preparation for the future. Others have taken microbial samples from the cryosphere and subjected them to Martian atmospheric conditions in the laboratory, and one recent paper suggests that a microbiome could exist on Mars and survive for 20 million years.
With that in mind, we don’t know at present if life on Mars is definitely there, but research is suggesting that it’s a distinct possibility. This new study, then, provides us with a novel way of searching for it when the time comes to finally head a little bit further out into that starry ocean above our heads – to Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and beyond.