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: Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Multi-spectra glasses' for scanning electron microscopy

Sep 26, 2014

The scanning electron microscope is not only used for precisely surveying the surface topology of samples, but also for determining their chemical compositions. This is done by exciting the atoms to fluoresce ...

A salty, martian meteorite offers clues to habitability

Aug 28, 2014

Life as we know it requires energy of some sort to survive and thrive. For plants, that source of energy is the Sun. But there are some microbes that can survive using energy from chemical reactions. Some ...

How Titan's haze help us understand life's origins

Aug 25, 2014

Where did life on Earth come from? There are several theories as to what might have happened. Maybe comets came bearing organic material, or life was transported from another planet such as Mars, or something ...

Titan offers clues to atmospheres of hazy planets

Jul 28, 2014

When hazy planets pass across the face of their star, a curious thing happens. Astronomers are not able to see any changes in the range of light coming from the star and planet system.

Biomarkers of the deep

Jul 25, 2014

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain is a unique geological site that has fascinated astrobiologists for decades. The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Spain's Río Tinto area is the largest known deposit ...

Recommended for you

Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

4 hours ago

High winds are a near-daily force on the surface of Mars, carving out a landscape of shifting dunes and posing a challenge to exploration, scientists said Tuesday.

PanSTARRS K1, the comet that keeps going

6 hours ago

Thank you K1 PanSTARRS for hanging in there! Some comets crumble and fade away. Others linger a few months and move on. But after looping across the night sky for more than a year, this one is nowhere near ...

NASA rocket has six minutes to study solar heating

8 hours ago

(Phys.org) —On Sept. 30, 2014, a sounding rocket will fly up into the sky – past Earth's atmosphere that obscures certain wavelengths of light from the sun—for a 15-minute journey to study what heats ...

User comments : 0