Further Extraction Protocols for the Life Marker Chip (Q1 2009)

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Earth Science and Engineering

Abstract

Broad and diverse sections of society engage with the question 'are we, that is Life on Earth, unique or if given appropriate conditions, does Life appear throughout the Universe?' Within our Solar System, we have the opportunity to address this question by visiting locations such as Mars that within our current understanding offer possible environments conducive to Life. Finding of evidence of Life on Mars that is independent of Life on Earth would give a strong indication that Life should be commonplace throughout the Universe. Such a finding would change forever humankind's view of our place in the cosmos. The use of space missions to place scientific instruments on the surface of Mars to search for evidence of Life, both preserved evidence of ancient Life and possible present Life gives us a way to address this question. The European Space Agency's ExoMars mission plans to place a rover on the Martian surface by the middle of the next decade with a primary goal of understanding the possibility of Life on Mars and searching for evidence of such. As part of the instrument suite within the proposed ExoMars rover are a number of instruments that are focused at detecting evidence of Life by searching for certain organic molecules possibly present at trace levels in the Martian environment. The nature of such molecules is that if present in the Martian environment, their presence could only be explained by the existence of Life to produce them: such molecules are called biomarkers. Therefore detection of such molecules would be a very strong indication of the presence of Life. One of the possible instruments within the instrument suite is a novel instrument in the context of space exploration and called the Life Marker Chip (LMC). The LMC exploits of a number of technologies that have been developed within other non-space applications and especially within the healthcare sector. Within healthcare, the detection of trace organic molecules is commonplace in the diagnosis of disease and is often reliant upon the use of biological assay such as those exploiting protein molecules such an antibodies. Well-known examples of such an approach are pregnancy testing kits. Such an approach, suitably developed for use on the surface of Mars, would enable a diverse range of organic molecule biomarkers to be detected in a compact and low mass instrument if multiple antibodies could be incorporated. A UK led international team has been exploring such an LMC technology and has been chosen in a separate review process by ESA to develop a LMC instrument for the ExoMars mission. Thus the overall objective of this project is to ultimately build a LMC instrument to be delivered to ESA and flown on the ExoMars mission. The programme of work will comprise (i) designing and developing the instrument hardware, (ii) production of antibodies required to detect biomarkers, (iii) using the antibodies in developing antibody assays that detect biomarkers, (iv) integrating the assays into the LMC hardware, (v) designing and producing a sample processing module that will extract the biomarkers from Martian rock and soil samples delivered by the rover to the LMC, (vi) validating the LMC instrument in laboratory trials and (vii) demonstrating the LMC instrument can be produced in a clean and sterile form that will not take Earth Life to Mars and contaminate the Martian environment and give false signal of Life on Mars. The instrument should have a mass of less than 2kg. Outputs of the LMC instrument together with the outputs from the other instrument within the rover will address specific scientific objectives such as is there (i) evidence of preserved ancient Life, (ii) evidence of short-lived biomarkers associated with current Martian Life and (iii) presence of other organic molecules that are not produced by Life but that will inform us about other aspects of the history and current nature of the Martian environment.

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