Cold case: Looking for life on Mars

Mar 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: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

An Interview with Thomas Vidick on quantum code cracking

Dec 15, 2014

Quantum computers, looked to as the next generation of computing technology, are expected to one day vastly outperform conventional computers. Using the laws of quantum mechanics—the physics that governs ...

Hunting for dark matter in a gold mine

Dec 09, 2014

"What really impressed me was the trip down," said astrophysicist James Buckley, PhD, speaking of the vertical mile he traveled to get to the site of an underground dark-matter experiment. "You can see you're ...

A close-up with a comet

Nov 11, 2014

Even as Tom Economou approached retirement age in 1994, he began planning an instrument for the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission to a comet. He still remembers the reaction of Riccardo Levi-Setti, ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

User comments : 0

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.