Living on Mars: New, Miniature Device Is Able to Detect Life And Sequence DNA

A portable, life-detection device that proved to be successful on Earth may have an exciting next step: to test for life on Mars and other planets.

Researchers from McGill University in Canada used three different devices to detect life in the Canadian High Arctic. One of the devices detects changes in color when nutrient sources were altered by microbes and another gadget assessed microbial colonization, according to Air & Space Magazine. The final instrument, called MinION, was perhaps the most exciting because it was able to detect microbes and sequence their DNA too, according to the research published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

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“The search for life is a major focus of planetary exploration, but there hasn't been direct life-detection instrumentation on a mission since the '70s, during the Viking missions to Mars,” Jacqueline Goordial, lead study author and postdoctoral fellow at McGill University, said in a statement. “We wanted to show a proof-of-concept that microbial life can be directly detected and identified using very portable, low-weight, and low-energy tools.”

1_28_Mars In this handout provided by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, dark, narrow streaks on the slopes of Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on surface of present-day Mars. These dark features on the slopes are called 'recurring slope lineae' or RSL. Scientists reported on September 28, 2015 using observations with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer on the same orbiter detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale Crater, corroborating the hypothesis that the streaks are formed by briny liquid water. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona via Getty Images

Goordial and her colleagues choose to test the devices in the Canadian High Arctic because the region has a similar dry, cold environment to Mars. The instruments proved to work well in the field, but there’s one barrier that stands in the way of the devices being sent to space anytime soon: they require humans. While sending people to Mars may happen as early as 2030, only unmanned missions are currently carried out around the Red Planet. Therefore, testing the devices will be a bit tricky.

“Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study, while life-detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic,” Lyle Whyte, co-author and environmental sciences professor at McGill University, said in a statement.

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Whyte also mentioned that the life-detection device needs a higher accuracy rate and be able to withstand extreme conditions for extended periods of time during missions.

But, even if the instrument never makes it to space, it could be a useful tool for Earthlings, especially those in remote areas. For example, if someone is sick in a far-off location, taking their DNA back to the lab could require a lengthy process. However, if the doctor has access to the MinION, they could use the device to identify the agent causing the disease without having to travel to the lab.