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Rocks could reveal secrets of life on Earth – and Mars


A new UK project could help detect evidence for life on Mars, as well as improve our understanding of how it evolved on Earth.

The aim is to develop a technique that can identify biomolecules in water that have been trapped in rocks for millions to billions of years.

As well as analysing samples from Earth, the proposed technique could be used to obtain important information from water sealed within rock samples brought back from Mars, for example. The team will also consider how the technique could be miniaturised for incorporation into spacecraft which travel to other planets.

The three-year initiative will be carried out by geologists and bioengineers at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow, with funding from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The research will explore significant technological challenges at the interface between the physical sciences and engineering. These include microfluidic methods for sample pre-concentration (ie the extraction and handling of exceptionally small amounts of fluid), single molecule detection technologies to locate very small amounts of biomaterials and the elimination of contaminants.

The project is highly innovative, attempting to access a source of biomolecules that has not been tapped before. Analysis of material dating from the time before the Earth’s fossil record became extensive is a major project aim. This could significantly enhance our knowledge of the development of life on Earth.

The initiative is being led by Dr John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen’s Geology and Petroleum Geology Department, in collaboration with Professor Jonathan Cooper of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering. Dr. Parnell says: “If the technology proves successful, it will enable us to take advantage of a new source of information about the history of life on Earth, and potentially on other planets too”.

Jane Reck | alfa
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