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A new system capable of identifying complex molecular signatures could aid in the search for alien life in the universe and could even lead to the creation of new forms of life in the laboratory, scientists say.

University of Glasgow researchers have developed a new method called Assembly Theory which can be used to quantify how assembled or complex a molecule is in the laboratory using techniques like mass spectrometry. The more complex the object, the more unlikely that it could arise by chance, and the more likely it was made by the process of evolution.

The Glasgow team, led by Professor Lee Cronin, developed Assembly Theory in partnership with collaborators at NASA and Arizona State University. Together, they have shown that the system works with samples from all over the earth and extra-terrestrial samples.

The system uses mass spectrometry to break the molecule into bits and counts the of unique parts. The larger the number of unique parts, the larger the assembly number and the team have been able to show that life on earth can only make molecules with high assembly numbers.

One of the main challenges of the search for has been identifying which chemical signatures are unique to life, leading to several ultimately unproven claims of the discovery of . The metabolic experiments of NASA's Viking Martian lander, for example, only detected simple molecules whose existence could be explained by natural non-living processes in addition to living processes.

In a new paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, the team describes a universal approach to life detection.

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