Cold case: Looking for life on Mars

March 22, 2006
Mars

Evidence never dies in the popular TV show Cold Case. Nor do some traces of life disappear on Earth, Mars, or elsewhere. An international team of scientists, including researchers from the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, has developed techniques to detect miniscule amounts of biological remains, dubbed biosignatures, in the frozen Mars-like terrain of Svalbard, a island north of Norway. This technology will be used on future life-search missions to the Red Planet.

The work is presented in several talks at NASA's Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2006 in Washington, D.C., March 26-30.

"It might seem like we're looking for a needle in a haystack," remarked Carnegie researcher Marilyn Fogel.1 "But it's much better than that. One of our studies showed that we can detect even the most minute amounts of the element nitrogen, which can be evidence of life. Interestingly, rocks might be particularly promising places to find traces left by the tiniest microbes. Svalbard is brittle cold, very dry, and rocky, much like the Martian environment, making it an excellent test bed."

Nitrogen is essential to DNA, RNA, and protein. All life depends on it. The scientists looked at how a certain type, or isotope, of nitrogen was distributed in soils, water, rocks, plants, and in microbes. They found that nitrogen quantities varied depending on how the element interacted with the environment and living organisms. "We found that organisms leave tell-tale nitrogen fingerprints on rocks, " stated Fogel. "The technology is well suited for finding remains of life on the rocky terrain of Mars."

In another study, the group found that they could adapt techniques used in genetic laboratories to the field.2 They found that DNA sampling and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method--which makes many copies of a specific segment of DNA for analysis--can detect genetic differences in rock-dwelling communities of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and fungi. Further, they identified over 90 different compounds that can be correlated to biosignatures of those life forms. These fingerprints will be part of an enormous library of signatures to which Martian samples can be compared in the search for life.

Link: http://abscicon2006.arc.nasa.gov for details.

Source: Carnegie Institution

Explore further: Intensity of desert storms may affect ocean phytoplankton

Related Stories

Intensity of desert storms may affect ocean phytoplankton

August 27, 2015

Each spring, powerful dust storms in the deserts of Mongolia and northern China send thick clouds of particles into the atmosphere. Eastward winds sweep these particles as far as the Pacific, where dust ultimately settles ...

Celebrating a year at the comet

August 6, 2015

It's been a long but exciting journey for Rosetta since its launch in 2004, featuring Earth, Mars and two asteroid flybys before arriving at its ultimate destination on 6 August 2014. Over the following months, the mission ...

The Planet Saturn

August 3, 2015

The farthest planet from the Sun that be observed with the naked eye, the existence of Saturn has been known for thousands of years. And much like all celestial bodies that can be observed with the aid of instruments – ...

Science on the surface of a comet

July 31, 2015

Complex molecules that could be key building blocks of life, the daily rise and fall of temperature, and an assessment of the surface properties and internal structure of the comet are just some of the highlights of the first ...

Recommended for you

How wind sculpted Earth's largest dust deposit

September 1, 2015

China's Loess Plateau was formed by wind alternately depositing dust or removing dust over the last 2.6 million years, according to a new report from University of Arizona geoscientists.

Brazilian wasp venom kills cancer cells by opening them up

September 1, 2015

The social wasp Polybia paulista protects itself against predators by producing venom known to contain a powerful cancer-fighting ingredient. A Biophysical Journal study published September 1 reveals exactly how the venom's ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.