An innovative scientific instrument, the Compact Color Biofinder, developed by a team of researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, could be a game-changer in the search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
Most biological materials, for example amino acids, fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, proteins and lipids, have strong organic fluorescence signals which can be detected by specialized scanning cameras. In a study published in Nature Science Reports Recently, the research team reported that the Biofinder is so sensitive that it can accurately detect bio-residues in fish fossils from the 34-56 million year old Green River Formation.
“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” said Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawaiian Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). . “Currently, no other equipment can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the day. The added advantages of the Biofinder are that it works at a distance of several meters, takes video and quickly scan a large area.
Although the Biofinder was first developed in 2012 by Misra, advancements supported by NASA’s PICASSO program have resulted in the latest color version of the compact Biofinder.
Finding evidence of biological residues across a vast planetary landscape is a huge challenge. So the team tested the Biofinder’s detection capabilities on ancient Green River fish fossils and corroborated the results through laboratory spectroscopy analysis, scanning electron microscopy, and time-lapse imaging microscopy. fluorescence life.
“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” Misra said. “However, our findings once again confirm that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that the use of biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these traces of residues in real time.”
The search for life – which may be extant or extinct – on planetary bodies is one of the primary goals of planetary exploration missions conducted by NASA and other international space agencies.
“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to quickly scan large areas for evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes. and dead for many millions of years,” Misra said. “We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be essential in future NASA missions to detect organic matter and the existence of life on other planetary bodies. .”
“The capabilities of the Biofinder would be critical to NASA’s planetary protection program, for the accurate, non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth,” said Sonia J. Rowley, team biologist and co-author of the study.
Misra and her colleagues ask for the option of sending the Biofinder on a future NASA mission.
“The detection of such biomarkers would be groundbreaking evidence for life outside planet Earth,” Misra said.