FEB 01, 2017 10:27 AM PST

A New Chemistry Test for Alien Life

WRITTEN BY: Jennifer Ellis

As life has originated and evolved, the necessary components have always been the proper building blocks and water. Building blocks such as amino acids are needed for both abiotic and biotic reactions. While there are hundreds of different varieties of amino acid configurations in abiotic reactions, biotic reactions have narrowed this down to only 20.

(DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.6b04338)

Scientists believe that potential life on other planets might have a similar evolutionary strategy. In addition to the types and configurations of amino acids, scientists can also look at chirality. Chiral molecules are developed into two forms consisting of mirror images of each other. Amino acids form “left-handed” and “right-handed” versions of the same molecule. Prior work examining the differences between abiotic and biotic forms of amino acids has determined that while abiotic, or non-living, sources have an equal amount of both left- and right-handed forms, biotic organisms contain primarily the left-handed form.

Using this knowledge, researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory have devised a new technique to analyze samples for amino acid type and chirality to look for signs of life on other planets. The chemistry-based test is a simple yet more sensitive version of capillary electrophoresis.

Previous analytical techniques used to analyze samples from other planets have mainly been gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The issue with these techniques for organic molecules is that there is an additional preparational step involved in getting the sample into the gas phase. This additional sample prep and unwanted reactivity makes amino acid detection challenging and much less sensitive.

Lead author Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL explains, “Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run. 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."

Capillary electrophoresis allows the samples to be analyzed immediately with no additional preparation as it is performed on samples in the liquid phase. The researchers coupled capillary electrophoresis with laser-induced fluorescence detection to achieve the high sensitivity needed for smaller samples and samples with low levels of potentially organic molecules.

The process is easily automated using liquid samples collected from other planet’s oceans, like that on Jupiter’s moon Europa. By combining a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, then shining a laser across the mixture using laser-induced fluorescence detection, researchers can observe specific molecules moving at different speeds. Through chemical analysis, the molecules become separated based on how quickly they respond to electric fields and can then be further analyzed.

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

Sources: Analytical Chemistry, NASA

About the Author
  • I love all things science and am passionate about bringing science to the public through writing. With an M.S. in Genetics and experience in cancer research, marketing and technical writing, it is a pleasure to share the latest trends and findings in science on LabRoots.
You May Also Like
MAY 12, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Improvised Face Covering: Finding Alternatives to Standard Masks During a Pandemic
MAY 12, 2020
Improvised Face Covering: Finding Alternatives to Standard Masks During a Pandemic
On April 3rd, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that they recommend members of the general pub ...
MAY 14, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Do Organic Chemists Speak an Alien Language?
MAY 14, 2020
Do Organic Chemists Speak an Alien Language?
Have you ever read a detergent label and got confused? Or had trouble understanding a medication recall? Certain ch ...
MAY 18, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Understanding the movement of Martian mars
MAY 18, 2020
Understanding the movement of Martian mars
New research led by scientists from the Institute of Geophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences describes the latest fi ...
JUN 05, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Wearable bio-ink detects and quantifies biological conditions and molecules
JUN 05, 2020
Wearable bio-ink detects and quantifies biological conditions and molecules
A new wearable sensing technology developed by researchers at Tufts University’s School of Engineering is describe ...
JUL 03, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Uber white paint improves passive daytime radiative cooling
JUL 03, 2020
Uber white paint improves passive daytime radiative cooling
A report published in the journal Joule describes an innovative paint that is capable of reflecting up to 98% of solar h ...
JUL 31, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Advancing Nuclear Fusion by Taming the "Chirping" Plasma
JUL 31, 2020
Advancing Nuclear Fusion by Taming the "Chirping" Plasma
2020 turns out to a year of breakthrough for nuclear fusion. The world's largest fusion project ITER (International ...
Loading Comments...