A new chemistry-based method could help scientists look for life beyond Earth.
Capillary electrophoresis is a technique which can be used to separate a mixture of organic molecules into its components. It was designed to analyze amino acids, the building blocks which make up our DNA. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have determined that the new method is 10,000 times more sensitive than the current methods which are employed on the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
One big advantage with the method is that it involves mixing a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, making it ideal and simple to use on ocean worlds, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Enceladus is covered in a liquid water ocean beneath its ice-crust, and features plumes of hot water and organic compounds erupting from its surface. It is one of the places in the solar system where scientists have high hopes of finding life.
Enceladus, with its south polar plumes.
The mechanism used in the newly developed method, Capillary electrophoresis, has actually been around since the 80s, but this is the first time the method is being used to detect extraterrestrial life. “Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run,” said Jessica Creamer, postdoctoral researcher at JPL. “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.”
“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.”