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."
Notes for Editors
The research initiative, "Molecular Sensor Array for Exobiology Application", received EPSRC funding of nearly £62,000.
The class of artificial molecular receptors used in the project are known as Molecular Imprinted Polymers (MIPs). MIPs mimic the way that biological recognition molecules (such as antibodies) work and are designed to recognise specific biomarkers or classes of biomarker. Recognition of target biomarkers by the MIPs can be turned into an output signal by electrochemical and optical methods.
The project demonstrated the overall system concept, identified areas for further development, and generated performance and design data. This data will provide the basis for follow-up projects that lead to exobiology missions.
Exobiology is the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of past and present life in the Universe.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk
Materials provided by Engineering And Physical Sciences Research Council. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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