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This device may help detect signs of extraterrestrial life

New York, Sep 20 (IANS): Researchers have developed a fully automated microchip electrophoresis analyzer that, when attached to a planetary rover, may one day detect organic biosignatures in extraterrestrial soil.

Although Earth is unique in the solar system, it supports creatures that call it home, as different planets may have been at one time, or on other planets.

But finding traces of past or present life forms in other worlds is challenging.

An important evidence for extraterrestrial life is the presence of certain organic molecules.

Previous missions to Mars have linked the gas chromosome and separated compounds along the mass spectrum (GC-MS).

However, this technique has limitations for the analysis of certain molecules, such as organic acids, especially in the case of water, minerals or salts, he said, adding that the NASA-funded study was published in the Chemical Analytical Chemistry of the American Chemical Society.

Researchers have suggested that laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) detection, based on microchip electrophoresis (ME), may be better, but that current tools are only partially automated and do not work for planetary missions.

Peter Willis and colleagues wanted to create a small, battery-powered device that could adopt a model and perform labeling, separation, and detection of organic molecules all in a fully automated manner.

The researchers developed a device consisting of two microchips – one for processing and labeling the liquid sample, and the other for separating (ME chip) compounds – and a LIF detection system.

How it worked.

After upgrading the device, researchers tested it on a simulated Mars in the Chilean desert.

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This group analyzer was integrated with a small subgroup water extractor in a rover system used remotely.

The rover was drilled into the soil to collect the samples and they were delivered to the extractor.

Then, water was added to the soil samples and they were heated to extract the compounds for analysis.

The device detected parts of one billion amino acids in soil from three to four drilling sites.

“Essentially, the sensitivity is three orders of magnitude higher than reported for GC-MS-based methods,” the authors wrote.

Although much work is needed to develop a tool for space travel and extraterrestrial conditions, the research “lays the groundwork for the development of ME-LIF instruments for the search for extraterrestrial life signs”.