03 juli 2014

How to Search for Life on Mars

The Martian Protein Detector
(see for original: ©Scientific American)
In my previous blog I discussed shortly universal characteristics of life as proposed by Christian de Duve. Precisely those characteristics are needed for designing a good test for detecting life on Mars. Recently, Christopher P. McKay and Victor Parro From NASA discussed How to Search for Life on Mars, in the Scientific American, June 2014. It is an interesting article. It is written by people actually involved in designing an instrument for detecting (microbial) life on Mars.

One obvious test for the presence of life, unsurprisingly, is DNA. However,
"One drawback of relying on DNA detection to reveal life on Mars is that although DNA is common to all life on Earth, it may not occur in alien life. Or, if it is present, it may be so different that DNA detectors built to find Earth biology will miss it". (my emphasis)
For that reason, they rejected DNA tests. Indeed, one cannot exclude alternative DNA, that is, DNA with a different structure, different bases or sugars [1,2]. Indeed, alternative DNA could exist on Mars. By the way, also, alternative amino acids, that is, other than the 20 amino acids on earth, could be used in proteins on Mars. The detection of amino acids on its own would not be a proof of life [3].

In stead of DNA testing, they opted for immunoassay testing "which is already in use for simultaneously detecting hundreds of different types of proteins, polysaccharides and other biomolecules (including DNA itself)".

This seems a reasonable thing to do, because complex molecules are highly unlikely produced abiotically [4], and so are certainly the most reliable proof of life we can think of.

Furthermore, "life on Earth is dominated by left-handed amino acids. If an experiment detects amino acids and finds a particular set that has a dominant left- or right-handed chirality, this would be compelling evidence for the presence of life."

The funny thing is, that the NASA researchers ended up by using methods already in use (on earth!) to detect complex terrestrial biomolecules. In other words: complex molecules characteristic for life on earth (including DNA itself)! How could they do otherwise? How could you detect alien life if you don't how to detect it?

Christian de Duve certainly would have agreed with that, since DNA and proteins (enzymes) are a universal feature of life (see my previous blog). And as far as I know, the NASA researchers do not attempt to sequence DNA or proteins. A specific DNA sequence would not be a universal characteristic of life.

For more details see the original article in the Scientific American.

  1. Molecular alternatives to DNA, RNA offer new insight into life's origins
  2. An Alternate DNA Structure
  3. http://cmex.ihmc.us/data/frontpg/missions/samret/Bada/BadaAbs.htm 
  4. "The equilibrium sytems are dominated by small molecules such as CO2, H2O, N2, NH3, and so on." H.J. Morowitz  ‎(1999)

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