Building blocks of life would be technically detectable in our solar system

Artificial image of the Cassini spacecraft analyzing ice grains ejected during tArtificial image of the Cassini spacecraft analyzing ice grains ejected during the passage of ice fountains from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers at Freie Universität Berlin Publish Study in the Journal Astrobiology.

In the future, space missions would be at least technically capable of detecting DNA, lipids, and other components of bacteria on ocean moons in our solar system - if such building blocks of life exist outside Earth. This has now been demonstrated in laboratory experiments by an international team led by scientists from the Planetary Science and Remote Sensing Research Group at Freie Universität Berlin. The study was carried out as part of the research project "Habitat OASIS," which is funded by the European Research Council with an ERC Consolidator Grant, and was published on Friday in the scientific journal Astrobiology.

Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, is famous for the cryovolcanic fountains it ejects into space. These fountains consist largely of ice grains that originate from a subterranean water ocean. Similar processes probably take place on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space probes can analyze the ejected ice grains with so-called impact ionization mass spectrometers, thus providing insight into the composition of the subsurface ocean water. Scientists at Freie Universität Berlin have now succeeded for the first time in laboratory experiments in predicting the appearance of bacterial components in mass spectra of such ice grains in great detail. In our experiments, we were able to show that DNA, lipids and even intermediate products of metabolic processes in the ejected ice grains would be technically unambiguously detectable with future space probes," explains Dr. Fabian Klenner, one of the first authors of the study. "This would even work if these biomolecules were present in only a few ice particles and in very low concentrations."

As part of their study, the researchers examined two different types of bacteria and found that some of the biomolecules examined leave behind clearly distinguishable biological "fingerprints" in the mass spectra that are dependent on the respective bacterium. "It is therefore not only possible to identify components of bacteria on extraterrestrial water worlds, but also to distinguish different species of bacteria from each other," emphasizes Fabian Klenner.

The results of this study come just in time for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October 2024. The spacecraft will carry a mass spectrometer suitable for detecting the building blocks of life, and the Planetology and Remote Sensing Research Group at Freie Universität Berlin is heavily involved in the project.

The international study was conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Zurich, the Open University in Milton Keynes, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and the University of Leipzig.

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