An innovative scientific tool developed by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, researchers are expected to be a game-changer in the search for life – existent or extinct – on Earth and other planets.
Called the Compact Color Biofinder, the instrument uses specialized cameras to scan large areas for fluorescent signals from biological materials such as amino acids, fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, proteins and lipids. The instrument has been successfully used to detect these bio-residues in fish fossils from the 34-56 million-year-old Green River rock formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The findings are published in Scientific reports†
“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” said Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology† “At the moment there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the day. Additional strengths of the Biofinder are that it works from a distance of several meters, records video and can quickly scan a large area.”
The search for life on other planets is one of the main goals of reconnaissance missions conducted by NASA and other international space agencies.
“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we could quickly scan large areas to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and death to many.” millions of years,” Misra said. “We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organic matter and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.”
Misra and his colleagues ask for a chance to send the Biofinder on a future NASA mission.
“The capabilities of the Biofinder would be critical for NASA’s Planetary Conservation Programfor the accurate and non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth,” said Sonia J. Rowley, the team abiologist and co-author of the study.
“The detection of such biomarkers would provide groundbreaking evidence for life beyond planet Earth,” Misra said. Although the Biofinder was first developed in 2012 by Misra, the advancements supported by the NASA Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO) program culminated in the latest color version of the compact Biofinder.
Finding evidence of biological remains in a vast planetary landscape is a huge challenge. The team tested the Biofinder’s detection capabilities on the ancient fish fossils in the Green River Formation and confirmed the results through laboratory spectroscopy analysis, scanning electron microscopy and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.
“There are some unknowns as to how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” Misra said. “However, our findings confirm once again that biological residues can survive for millions of years and that the use of biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time.”
–By Marcie Grabowski
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