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New Method for Finding Life on Mars

Image credit: NASA

Is there life on Mars? A team of scientists from the University of Glasgow have developed a method they believe will help detect evidence of life in ancient rocks – perhaps helping uncover if there’s life on Mars. With their technique, the rocks are crushed to release tiny amounts of liquid water, and then special detectors are used to search for the presence of biomolecules in the water. Once the technique has been proven to work, the researchers believe it could be miniaturized and flown aboard future Mars landers.

A new UK project could help detect evidence of life on Mars and improve our understanding of how life evolved on Earth. The aim is to develop a technique that can identify biomolecules in water that have been trapped in rocks for millions to billions of years.

The three-year initiative will be carried out by geologists and bioengineers at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow, with funding from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The initiative is being led by Dr John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen’s Geology and Petroleum Geology Department, in collaboration with Professor Jonathan Cooper of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Electronics.

Professor Cooper says, ‘With our collaborators in Aberdeen, we are fortunate to have the possibility of working on one of the most exciting projects in the universe, the search for life on other planets!’

As well as analysing samples from Earth, the technique could be used to obtain important information from water sealed within rock samples brought back from Mars. The team will also consider how the technique could be miniaturised for incorporation into spacecraft that travel to other planets.

The research will explore significant technological challenges at the interface between the physical sciences and engineering. These include microfluidic methods for sample pre-concentration (ie the extraction and handling of exceptionally small amounts of fluid), single molecule detection technologies to locate very small amounts of biomaterials and the elimination of contaminants.

The project is highly innovative, attempting to access a source of biomolecules that have not been tapped before. Analysis of material dating from the time before the Earth’s fossil record became extensive is a major project aim, potentially resulting in our knowledge of the development of life on Earth being significantly enhanced.

Original Source: University of Glasgow News Release

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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