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The red planet – Dead or alive?


Is there – or has there ever been – life on Mars? A UK project could help provide the answer to this fascinating question.

The team are working to improve the equipment on space probes which is used to try and identify evidence of life on other planets.

The work is focusing on the development of more effective and robust systems for detecting ’biomarkers’. (’Biomarkers’ are molecules that indicate the existence of current or extinct life.)

Researchers at Cranfield University are carrying out the work, together with space instrument scientists at the University of Leicester. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded the project.

Current methods of detecting biomarkers are of limited effectiveness because they use biological receptors which can be fragile when facing the extreme environmental conditions involved in exploration work. This EPSRC-funded project sets out to demonstrate alternative approaches that offer greater flexibility for the detection of different biomarker molecules.

The team focused on improving biosensor technology by using innovative artificial molecular receptors to replace the more common, and less robust biological receptors. This could lead to the inclusion of far more effective biomarker sensors on future missions to Mars and other places in the Solar System where it is currently thought that life might exist or have existed in the past.

An instrument design - SMILE (Specific Molecular Identification of Life Experiment) - resulting from this research has already been selected for further consideration by the European Space Agency for the proposed ExoMars rover due for launch in 2009.

The central component of the project was the demonstration of how the concepts and technologies used for the production of biological (i.e. DNA-based and protein-based) molecular receptors can be adapted to create micro-sensor arrays for biomarkers. The inclusion of robust artificial molecular receptors, rather than the typical DNA-based or protein-based receptors, enables the targeting of biomarkers as well as improved receptor stability designed to cope with the extreme environments that would be encountered during a mission to Mars.

Dr David Cullen of Cranfield University’s Institute of Bioscience and Technology led the research. He says: "Our work represents a significant step forward in the search for extraterrestrial biomarkers. Producing technology to develop a more effective biomarker detection system will have a huge impact on our understanding of how life originates and evolves."

Jane Reck | EurekAlert!
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