NASA scientists developed a new method to search lives on other planets. Researchers developed a chemistry-based technique to detect lives by analysing amino acids.
The researchers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California carried out the study. The study has been published in Analytical Chemistry.
The researchers said this method is 10,000 times more sensitive than the current methods employed by NASA’s spacecraft Mars Curiosity Rover.
The advantage of this new method is – the use of the capillary electrophoresis is simple and it is easy to automate for liquid samples expected on ocean world missions.
There are different types of amino acids. Detecting the amino acids in other planets is a step to find the existence of alien lives. The principal investigator of the project, Peter Willis said, “Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms.”
A postdoctoral scholar at JPL, Jessica Creamer said capillary electrophoresis has been around since the early 1980s. This is the first time it has been used to detect extraterrestrial life on the alien world.
Creamer said, “It allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salty samples, with a very simple ‘mix and analyse’ process.”
The test uses a liquid-based technique known as capillary electrophoresis to separate a mixture of organic molecules into its components. In this process, a liquid sample is combined with a liquid reagent for chemical analysis under prescribed conditions.
Then a laser is shown across the mixture – the process is called laser-induced fluorescence detection in which scientists are able to detect specific molecules moving at various speeds. The molecules get separated according to the speed at which they respond to the electric field.
In this modified technique, scientists could sense more amino acid molecules in a single test. They were able to analyse 17 amino acids at the same time. The researchers call these “the signature 17 standards”. These amino acids were selected because they are the most commonly occurring amino acids on Earth.
The researchers can also detect the amino acids at any concentration level even in samples with high salt concentration.
The researchers analysed the amino acids in California’s Mono Lake which is known to be highly alkaline and hence a difficult place to find life in. The lake’s environment gave the scientists an idea of the possible environment in Mars and the ocean worlds of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The properties of some molecules of amino acids come in two forms, left-handed or right-handed. Non-living sources have amino acids that have both left-handed and right-handed molecules. Living organisms on Earth have amino acids that have almost left-handed molecules.
As on Earth, amino acid lives are of left-handed form scientists are confident that alien amino acids too may come in left or right-handed form.