NASA technique to scan space dust for proof of life

Tuesday, 4 February 2014 - 6:32pm IST | Agency: IANS

In a latest bid to unravel the mysterious origin of life, a team of researchers has invented an advanced technology to inspect extremely small meteorite samples for the components of life.

This technology would enable scientists to investigate other small-scale extraterrestrial materials such as micrometeorites, interplanetary dust particles and cometary particles in future studies.

According to scientists, despite their small size, interplanetary dust particles may have provided higher quantities and a steadier supply of extraterrestrial organic material to early earth.

"Unfortunately, there have been limited studies examining their organic composition, especially with regards to biologically relevant molecules that may have been important for the origin of life owing to the miniscule size of these samples," explained Michael Callahan of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The team found amino acids in a 360 microgram sample of the 'Murchison' - a well-studied meteorite.

This sample size is 1,000 times smaller than the typical sample size used.

"Murchison is a well-studied meteorite. We got the same results looking at a very small fragment as we did a much larger fragment from the same meteorite," said Callahan.

The team used a nanoflow liquid chromatography instrument to sort the molecules in the meteorite sample.

It then applied nanoelectrospray ionisation to give the molecules an electric charge and deliver them to a high-resolution mass spectrometer instrument, which identified the molecules based on their mass.

"We are pioneering the application of these techniques for the study of meteoritic organics," said Callahan in a study available in the Journal of Chromatography A.

"This technology would also be extremely useful to search for amino acids and other potential chemical biosignatures in samples returned from Mars," added Daniel Glavin from Goddard's astrobiology analytical laboratory.

Till date, researchers have analysed carbon-rich meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) and found amino acids, which are used to make proteins.

Proteins are among the most important molecules in life, used to make structures like hair and skin, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions.


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