Have we been looking for extraterrestrials in all the wrong places? San Diego State University chemists are developing methods to find signs of life on other planets by looking for the building blocks of proteins in a place they've never been able to test before: inside rocks.
After collaborating with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge in 2019, Jessica Torres, a doctoral student studying chemistry at SDSU, is experimenting with ways to extract amino acids from porous rocks that could be used on future rovers.
Previous research has looked for evidence of other life forms in water and soil, but not from solid materials.
Current methods for identifying amino acids can’t differentiate versions created by a living organism from those formed through random chemical reactions. And existing techniques usually require water — which would freeze or evaporate if placed on a space probe traveling to Mars or Europa, the ice-covered saltwater moon of Jupiter that some regard as a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life because of its subsurface ocean.
“The true novelty of our project is to approach detection of life using alternative solvents that are better suited for space instead of water and organic solvents, which are very suitable on earth,” Torres said. “We hope to develop a microfluidic device that can extract, sample, and identify amino acids in rocks. This is particularly novel because JPL does not have a method to approach this quite yet.”
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