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Can Biosensors Find Life On Mars?

file photo: a nanoscale substrate shows a pattern of tiny pyramid indentations. Working at similar scales researchers hope to use sensors of molecular imprinted polymers, where cavities in the polymer surface are moulded to fit a particular shape of molecule, to detect biologically produced compounds which could remain stable over millions of years
Cranfield - Nov 27, 2001
Is there life on Mars? Thanks to a 60k grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team from Cranfield University and the University of Leicester will try and find the answer.

The team, led by Dr David Cullen from Cranfield's Biotechnology Centre and Dr Mark Sims at the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, aim to investigate life on Mars by producing prototype advanced biomimetic sensors. These sensors are planned to fly on a future robotic Mars exploration.

The sensors use the nanotechnology of molecular imprinted polymers, where cavities in the polymer surface are moulded to fit a particular shape of molecule, to detect biologically produced compounds which may remain stable over millions of years.

The sensor development will take place at Cranfield with space environment testing at Leicester. The work utilises Prof. Bill Grant's expertise at the University of Leicester's Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the microbial ecology of extreme environments, in deciding which types of compounds should be sought out.

One group of microbes known as the Archaea live in extreme environments on Earth and are thought to be a good model of what life may be like on other planets. Such organisms are also thought to be able to hibernate over millions of years in the right kind of geological conditions.

Although Mars today is a cold dry planet it was thought to have been very much like the early Earth soon after the formation of the solar system with potentially vast amounts of water and suitable chemistry and conditions for evolution of life.

In recent years, Mars has been of great interest following the NASA announcement in 1996 of possible evidence of life inside a meteorite that came from there. This work, although of a controversial nature, has highlighted the possibilities of life on Mars.

The planned work should allow the development of very small instruments i.e. 'laboratories-on-a-chip' to be built for future Mars missions reducing the size of instruments and leading to a more complete in-situ analysis of samples. Dr Mark Sims, who is also the Beagle 2 Mars Lander Mission Manager, believes "This kind of technology-driven development will represent a quantum leap in sensing biomolecules on another planet".

Dr David Cullen agrees, "This is an exhilarating time as recent developments in a host of different disciplines are converging to make possible both the setting of detailed questions about life on Mars and the technology to answer them". He also emphasises that "Not only does the project offer the possibility of detecting life on Mars but also promises the spin-out of robust molecular sensor technology for use in extreme Earth environments, both in natural and industrial processes".

Related Links
Beagle 2
University of Leicester
Cranfield University
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ASU Researchers Set Criteria For Recognizing Extraterrestrial Life
Tempe - Nov 20, 2001
For as long as people have gazed at the night sky, they have wondered if neighboring planets could be populated by living things. In fact, recent explorations of our solar system have relayed several enticing hints that the life-supporting conditions on Earth may not be so unique.


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