Using capillary electrophoresis to break down a mixture of organic molecules, we want to devise a simple chemical method that could decisively improve how life is sought on the ground on other planets.
The method would be 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods used by space missions such as NASA explorer Mars Curiosity, according to a study published in Analytical Chemistry which has been carried out by researchers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Although capillary electrophoresis has existed since the early 1980s, this is the first time it has been specifically adapted to detect extraterrestrial life with oceans, such as Europe. It consists of combining a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, under conditions determined by the equipment. By passing a laser through the mixture (a process known as laser-induced fluorescence detection) specific molecules can be observed moving at different speeds. They are separated depending on how quickly they respond to electric fields.
According to lead author, Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL:
Our method improves previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run. In addition, it allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salted samples, with a very simple "mixing and analysis" process.
Using this method, the authors assure that they will be able to distinguish between amino acids that come from non-living sources such as meteorites from amino acids that come from living organisms