Scientists develop new CE method for detecting life on ocean worlds

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  • Published: Jan 27, 2017
  • Source: JPL
  • Channels: Electrophoresis
thumbnail image: Scientists develop new CE method for detecting life on ocean worlds

A novel capillary electrophoresis (CE)-based method could vastly enhance how scientists search for signs of life on other planets.

The new method uses CE to analyze amino acids and is 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods employed by spacecraft like NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, according to a new study published in Analytical Chemistry. The study was carried out by researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, US.

One of the key advantages of the authors' new way of using CE is that the process is relatively simple and easy to automate for the kind of liquid samples expected on extraterrestrial worlds with subterranean oceans. The test involves combining a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, followed by CE and laser-induced fluorescence detection.

This is the first time CE has been tailored specifically to detect extraterrestrial life on an ocean world, said lead author Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL. "Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run," Creamer said. "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."

The researchers tested the method by analyzing amino acids present in the salt-rich waters of Mono Lake in California. The lake's exceptionally high alkaline content makes it a challenging habitat for life, and an excellent stand-in for the salty waters believed to be on Mars, or the ocean worlds of Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa.

The researchers were able to simultaneously analyze 17 different amino acids, which they are calling "the Signature 17 standard." These amino acids were chosen for study because they are the most commonly found on Earth or elsewhere.

"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," said Peter Willis of JPL, the project's principal investigator.

Key to detecting amino acids related to life is an aspect known as ‘chirality’. Chiral molecules such as amino acids come in two forms that are mirror images of one another. Although amino acids from non-living sources contain approximately equal amounts of the ‘left’- and ‘right’-handed forms, amino acids from living organisms on Earth are almost exclusively of the ‘left-handed’ form.

Scientists expect that amino acid life elsewhere would also need to ‘choose’ one of the two forms in order to create the structures of life. For this reason, chirality of amino acids is considered to be one of the most powerful signatures of life.

"One of NASA's highest-level objectives is the search for life in the universe," Willis said. "Our best chance of finding life is by using powerful liquid-based analyses like this one on ocean worlds."

(Photo of Mono Lake, California, with salt pillars known as ‘tufas’ visible, courtesy of Mono County Tourism.)

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