BioFinder detects organic molecules in fossils, could help find aliens
Our first encounter with extraterrestrial life isn’t likely to be a spaceship landing on the White House lawn, but tiny fossils in the rocks of another planet. To aid in that search, scientists at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa have developed a portable device called the Biofinder that can highlight organic residue in fossils tens of millions of years old.
Organic materials in fossils give off fluorescent signals under different types of light, including UV, infrared and X-rays, and scientists take advantage of this to examine and categorize museum specimens. Adapting these techniques for field use could help biological remains stand out from the rocks around them, but so far the instruments are bulky and finicky.
Enter the Biofinder. This device is a far more compact instrument that shines a laser onto fossil samples and excites fluorescence in organic materials that may remain, such as amino acids, proteins, lipids and microbes. The results are captured on video in real-time at 20 frames per second, and a short exposure time allows it to block out daylight or luminescence from non-biological minerals.
“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” said Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and co-author of the study. “At present, there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime. Additional strengths of the Biofinder are that it works from a distance of several meters, takes video and can quickly scan a large area.”
In the new study, the team tested the Biofinder on a series of fish fossils dating back 34 to 56 million years. Sure enough, the instrument successfully picked up bio-residues in the samples, which were corroborated with analysis using larger laboratory equipment.
“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” said Misra. “However, our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time.”
This ability could have some pretty important applications, up to and including the discovery of alien life. Rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance have uncovered plenty of evidence that Mars was once potentially habitable, but have so far failed to spot any direct signs of life, past or present. But that could just be because they don’t have the right instruments.
“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and dead for many millions of years,” said Misra. “We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.”
The team is currently applying to NASA to consider the Biofinder for a future mission. The research was published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
Source: University of Hawaii at Mānoa