Pretty soon, we’re probably going to start directly searching for life on nearby worlds like Mars, and maybe Europa. The only problem is, we don’t have a good way of actually detecting life.
That could all be set to change though, thanks to a new technique designed by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California (JPL). It’s called “capillary electrophoresis”, according to NASA, and basically involves looking for amino acids, which are the structural building blocks of all life on Earth.
This new method is supposedly 10,000 times more effective that methods currently used on machines like NASA’s Curiosity rover, specifically the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. The research was published in Analytical Chemistry.
"Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run," lead author Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, said in a statement. "Additionally, it allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salty samples, with a very simple 'mix and analyze' process."
Interestingly, the method would even be useful for looking for life on ocean worlds like Europa. A laser would be shined on a liquid sample, allowing specific molecules to be observed and separated using electric fields.
To test out the method, the researchers used samples from Mono Lake in California. The lake has a high alkaline content, making it tricky for life to form in, acting as a good analog to the supposed salty waters on Mars and Europa. The team was able to analyze 17 different amino acids, known as “the Signature 17 standard”, and work out which ones were coming from living organisms.
In fact, the samples did not even need much preparation beforehand, meaning it might not be too difficult to replicate the procedure on another world. Three biosignatures were detected, which are thought to be a good indicator that life is present.
“These data clearly illustrate how the methods and biosignature patterns described here could be used to identify the presence of life on a planetary mission,” the paper concluded. “These results highlight the applicability of the protocols described here for the detection of amino acid biosignatures in salty samples during possible missions to Europa or Enceladus, two prime destinations in the search for life beyond Earth.”