Life On Mars: New DNA Sequencing Device Could Aid In Detecting Alien Life

Norman Byrd

Scientists are working to further develop a life-seeking instrument — a DNA sequencer — that may be used to confirm the existence of alien life on Mars and moons within the Solar System where it is believed living organisms may have emerged. Called the MiniON, the device is portable and will be small enough to be conveyed on future missions to seek out microbes in extraterrestrial environments.

Seeker reported last week that MiniON, which is constructed by the United Kingdom's Oxford Nanopore Technologies, works well in the field, according to a recently published study. Researchers used the instrument to analyze an area that is similar to conditions on Mars — an island 560 miles south of the North Pole where cold perennial springs, unique formations that exist in permafrost that exist as deep as 1,970 feet. They detected microbes at the springs and also were able to sequence DNA from those microbes, providing hope that the sequencer can be employed to possibly find alien life on other worlds.

The study is important in that the area where the MiniON detected and sequenced DNA is comparable to certain places on Mars. Called recurring slope lineae, the features are dark streaks found on the slopes of craters (most often where it is warm). Although it has come under question since their detection whether or not the lineae actually have any connection to water, particularly briny liquid, it is hoped that a future Mars mission might take MiniON along to possibly confirm the lineae and whether or not it contains alien microbial life.

Lyle Whyte, a McGill University professor who participated in the new study, pointed out that the recurring slope lineae is something that cannot be completely confirmed until the area is sampled. He also pointed out that there are many sites around the Solar System that might potentially harbor life, not only on Mars but on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The research team hopes that MiniOn's small size will make it an attractive addition to future space missions.

"The smaller, the better," says Whyte. "Because you might only have 600 pounds to play with, and 150 of that is rover hardware."

Whyte also works on the landing team selection committee for the ExoMars 2020 rover.

The DNA sequencer MiniON is the latest technical development that might one day confirm that alien life does, in fact, exist on Mars. Although much about the Red Planet suggests that it might be inhospitable to living organisms, new studies and discoveries continue to provide hope that life might be detected. For example, last January it was announced that astrobiologists at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville had found that it was possible that certain microbes could survive the harshly thin atmosphere of Mars.