Mars Sample Return Mission? Naaah… Just Beam Back Martian DNA

Artist concept of a Mars Sample Return mission. Credit: Wickman Spacecraft & Propulsion.

A Mars sample return mission has long been a dream and goal of many planetary scientists. Getting Martian soil samples back here on Earth would allow them to be studied in ways rovers and landers just can’t do. Of course, the big reason for getting samples of Mars back to Earth would be to really determine if there ever was – or is — life on Mars. But a sample return mission would be “hellishly difficult,” Steve Squyres of the MER mission once said.

But forget sending a lander, scooping up samples, putting them in a capsule and somehow rocketing them back to Earth. Human genome sequencer Craig Venter wants to send a DNA sequencing machine Mars, and beam back the DNA data to Earth. Not to be outdone, Jonathan Rothberg, founder the DNA sequencing company Ion Torrent, is working on getting his Personal Genome Machine to Mars and sending back the data.

In articles in the Los Angeles Times and MIT’s Technology Review this week the two biologists seem to be in a race, of sorts, to see who could send their DNA machines to Mars first. Venter was quoted as saying, “There will be life forms there,” Venter said, and wants to build a “biological teleporter.”

Rothberg is looking to be part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

An MIT researcher involved in the project, Christopher Carr, told Technology Review that his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover, and they are testing how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

With NASA’s current budget woes, a sample return mission likely couldn’t happen until around 2030. But another Mars rover mission may be slated for 2018, if all goes well, and a DNA sequencer could potentially be part of the mission, the two biologists said. And an in-situ DNA sequencer avoids the potential pitfalls of a sample return mission.

“People are worried about the Andromeda strain,” Venter said. “We can rebuild the Martians in a P-4 spacesuit lab instead of having them land in the ocean.”

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Technology Review

28 Replies to “Mars Sample Return Mission? Naaah… Just Beam Back Martian DNA”

  1. Shouldn’t we find out if there is any DNA before we send a sequencer? Even if there is some sort of life on Mars, what if it transmits inherited characteristics using some other means?

    1. I remember there being a huge buzz for like 2 days this spring when some scientists published a paper regarding the viking data:

      Taken from the article:

      “New analysis of 36-year-old data, resuscitated from printouts, shows
      NASA found life on Mars, an international team of mathematicians and
      scientists conclude in a paper published this week.”

      Maybe I missed the memo as I don’t follow this like a blood hound, but did anyone confirm/deny this?

      Otherwise I agree with you, a sequencer is a terribly focused piece of hardware that would cost a lot to send up and has a low probability of “proving” anything.

      i mean say it samples a ton of land and never finds DNA? Does that mean life never existed? All it means is that life doesn’t exist in those samples or that the remains are too degraded to detect. So My vote, is to only send equipment that can really have use or has a good probability of being useful.

      Without some strong evidence of life to start with, I think a sample return mission would be better.

      If safety is a concern, I’m sure there must be a way to ensure the sample doesn’t have to land on earth to be studied. Couldn’t we catch it on the way back and take it to the ISS or something? Thereby containing the potential contamination to a lab that can be jettisoned or something if there is a problem?

  2. The samples taken to analyze for possible DNA must then by necessity be taken from underground, under or inside a rock(?) or at least from a location in permanent shadow. Ice would do the trick and preserve the DNA. Sample at the poles? Or in underground ice? UV radiation does bad-bad things to exposed DNA molecules. The surface of Mars is bathed in UV radiation and would probably break DNA samples into unrecognizable sequences. That is… unless a life form on Mars had figured out a way to keep this from happening. Sunscreen anyone?

    1. If such a mission were actually launched, it would probably be on a curiosity frame, with a very similar rock drill and sampling system. The destruction of organics by UV is one of the main reasons it has that. Not that I think such a mission should be launched, just saying…

  3. Big egos and big money in play here. Actual science could be taking a back seat. Let’s see convincing evidence for the presence of recognizable biological molecules on Mars before spending large dollars on portable sequencers.

    1. Fun fact, John F. Kennedy didn’t care about the science when he said he wanted us to go to the moon. That was just a bonus on the side to him. The real reason was he wanted to beat the Russians. That sounds like an egotistical thing to do.

      1. If we are sending instruments, not people, we should probably care about the science. “Multi-Billion dollar DNA sequencer mission fails to detect any DNA” would not be the most inspiring message.

      2. Well we won’t know if there’s DNA there without sending a mission, would we? The point of science isn’t to know everything, but to be taught about everything. If they fail, so what? It comes with the field. If everyone based experiments on “what if we fail?”, where would we be?

  4. I HATE to point out the obvious – but DNA/RNA is found in all living things on EARTH.
    Alien Lifeforms (If they exist permitting) may have an entirely different way of ‘living’ compared to us – perhaps something that doesn’t follow the standard helix/protein structures that we Earth-born creatures do.

    And please don’t raise an argument saying that “DNA is the only possible way of a living creature to live!” we, as a species, are constantly proving and disproving everything that comes in our path. People once believed the world rested on a gigantic turtle – enough that they would stake their life on it… Look where they are today.
    Fun fact: Some people still believe it.

    Keep an open mind ^^ Either way, I doubt NASA would allow such a sequencer to be fitted to one of their rovers without some hellishly-convincing evidence of life existing on Mars in the first place.

    1. Whatever it’s base, any life form would need some sort of molecular chain capable of storing information generationally, replicating itself and passing that information on to offspring.

  5. well, if they find it would mean than life on Mars came blasted from from Earth during LHB or vise versa. But in any other scenario they would not find anything. And even in the case of panspermy, billions years of evolution in different environments would do great divergence.
    BTW, would their machine work with DNA analogue working on the same principle but with slightly altered nucleobases or, more likely, greatly different sugars? And in the case when panspermy really took place and the sequencer would work, what we would know about Martian forms of life from unrecognizable nucleotide sequences, very possibly with different coding and all underlying biochemistry?

  6. ““People are worried about the Andromeda strain,” Venter said. “We can
    rebuild the Martians in a P-4 spacesuit lab instead of having them land
    in the ocean.””

    I think it’s worth pointing out that we have a PERFECTLY GOOD SPACE STATION in orbit we could send it to without having to resort to dropping it to earth. All we would have to so is put the sample canister in orbit and send out a simple probe to snag it, bring it over and and dock it.

  7. Ah yes, a logical initiative given the recent sequencing progress and its money (and egos, as technoboi10 notes).

    And quite possibly there is a political maneuvering behind the timing, since if you follow the re-planning of US planetary programs they have to utilize the SLS pork machine as much as they can. Having astronauts fetch samples is a possible strategy to steer manned mission money into martian investigation, and as several commenters note the ISS is a resource for quarantine and it has now, IIRC, specifically been identified as such.

    I used to think looking for nucleotides were a complete waste of time. But as the sample return program and its costs have evolved, it is a valuable shortcut that could be researched early on. Reading up on Curiosity it can identify them in the wet chemistry experiments, and quite possibly their polymers could be seen in the MS portion of the experiment suite.

    The trouble with sequencing would seem to be the DNA specificity. However, I think it can work out:

    – We have established quite firmly that the RNA world is a possible and hence (seeing how rapidly life evolved on Earth) a quite likely pathway. And from that position there would be few stabler nucleotides available by metabolic transformation than DNA.

    – But recently we have succeeded in a much more important resolution. It appears, contra commenter Donaldson here, that the slogan will become from now on and quite possibly forever “DNA is the only possible way of a living creature to live!”

    This comes out of the thermodynamics of replicators, a simplest generic pathway towards living populations of cells, that has now been investigated in depth. There is a fairly wide but yet exclusionary gap in the heat bound for replicators.

    Turns out replicator have to be stable enough to be viable but not too stable to saturate the heat bound. This lets RNA in but excludes DNA and stable PNA et cetera. (And by my quick and dirty estimates polypeptides.) [“Statistical Physics of Self-Replication“, England, submitted.]

    Unless some alternative heteropolymer turns up that can act as replicator, or even better replicator and enzyme, it seems RNA and eventually DNA cells will be the only possible ones.

    Can we imagine populations that are non-cellular based? Well, possibly. Perhaps viral aggregates living decoupled from some autocatalytic metabolism. But again we are entertaining the idea of replicators as the central bottleneck, and the combination of replication and thermodynamic bottlenecks gets us back to RNA.

    The RNA/protein world was only ~ 20 % of the genome lifetime on Earth, and was replaced by the DNA LUCA before atmosphere oxygenation and domain diversification happened. It seems that looking for extant or late extinct life by sequencing the then more abundant DNA could be a viable idea.

  8. Honestly, notwithstanding all the other (usually somewhat obnoxious) posts commenting on non-science articles, this one takes the cake in my book. I want to set up an ice cream stand on Mars as I wouldn’t have to pay to keep the stuff cool. Why isn’t that worth a UT article?? At least MY idea is based on reality. There is not and never has been ANY evidence of life anywhere but here. Why do you invest even a moment’s cursory glance at the prattling on of some science nitwit. What utter extravagant fantasy.

    1. “There is not and never has been ANY evidence of life anywhere but here.”

      But nowhere is it written that if such lie exists, it will stand up and shout its presence to you.

      One can make a good argument that this is not the best, and should not be the only approach…but if you don’t go and look for it in some manner, in what seems to be at least a marginally possible place, you may be guaranteed to never have such evidence, either.

      1. Life grows. Life expands, Life multiplies. Life on earth diversified so much we can barely identify some of it as such. Everywhere on earth that can sustain even an extremophile bacteria is seething with life and the evidence thereof. Mars shows no outward display of colour, of texture or visual cues of any sort of life. (Yes, I’m aware of certain perplexing gases.) We certainly aren’t going to find some ancient evidence of simple cells under a rock or in a scoop of surface sand. Everyone seems to be under the impression that there had to have been or still exists, life on that barren red globe. “Don’t contaminate it!”, “sequence non-existant DNA!”, “Humans are descendants of early Martians.”…is this an inherant human need, like a deity? Do we feel more comfortable or less alone with the stance that life exists on our neighbour? No stromatolites, no petrified stumps, no limestone deposits, no tracks, no bones and no evidence of habitation. I think it’s time to believe what the evidence is actually showing us instead of wistful, wishful wanting. I’m all for giant, slow, swimming denizens in the lakes of Europa but for now, that is just more science fiction.The likelihood approacheth zero, my friends.

      2. In general, we have good reason to believe life evolving is easy. Chemical evolution is ubiquitous and the short time to evolve life on Earth implies it is an easy/often enough attempted process.

        As for Mars, its early habitability seems to have approached that of Earth. That is why astrobiologists are looking to characterize habitability and test for life. Both finding life or not finding it is valuable information.

    2. commenting on non-science articles,

      “Rothberg is looking to be part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

      An MIT researcher involved in the project, Christopher Carr, told Technology Review that his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine”.

      And Venter is already a Nobel prize nominee I think, not a “science nitwit”. If he spawns off into astrobiology he will elevate its position, and both as biologist and venture capitalist he can contribute more than most.

      So much for non-science and hence not “no reality”. Astrobiology is, if not mainstream respected (ask some microbiologists; or my new spell checker that just suggested “astrology” =) ), supported by many universities.

      As to why it is a good idea, see my comment. Such an investment may cut down on resources (time, capital) spent on sample-return for, today, mostly astrobiological reasons.

      Ice cream on Mars is doable but in the present economics (no colonization) premature. Sample return is not only not premature, it is overdue.

  9. i just wanted to say your missing a “to” in “a DNA sequencing machine Mars”, aside, i definatly think thats a much better idea then a sample return.

    1. It is an informative test. In another comment I laid out why it may be a valuable shortcut compared to a sample return program that can stretch for many decades until we know either way.

      DNA can be found if:

      – There is extant or recently extinct life. IIRC DNA lifetime in fossils have been 100s of thousands of years.

      – There is a deep freeze permafrost layer, as believed. IIRC frozen DNA lifetime when shielded from cosmic radiation is expected to be ~ 0.5 Ga (billion years).

      Admittedly it can probably not probe the surface habitable era of Mars, up to perhaps ~ 3 Ga bp (before present). But eliminating ~ 15 % of a putative biosphere lifetime is not bad. In that sense this mission is worth 6 sample returns.

      [Realistically this would be a test bench for the deep drill and sequence mission needed for best ROI.]

      I too would like to learn more, but if a series of missions leading up to sample return is on the table, this is the time this should be considered. Or rather, it is overdue but the technology wasn’t there before.

  10. If this sequencer can be made at 3kg this is a pretty small percentage of the overall mass of a lander + rover system. The difficulty would be in engineering a robot or rover with the ability to find life in a wide range of possible places. One such place might be in the transition between glacial ice and regolith above. I doubt life that resembles life on Earth can exist directly on the surface, for the UV radiation is too intense and temperatures are not conducive to life. This might mean drilling or being able to sample water that has been observed to emerge from crater walls. This is where the greater engineering task and expense will lie, not with just getting an additional 3kg to Mars.


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