We have the technology to look for life on Mars

The Curiosity rover can do a lot of things, but nobody is expecting her to find direct evidence of life on Mars. In fact, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has been a pretty stunted one. The last time we really looked was during the Viking missions, which tried to find chemical "footprints" that would exist if there had once been life on Mars, but that could end up on that planet for other reasons, as well. What we got back was a less-than-enthralling "Outlook Hazy. Try Again Later."

Ever since, we've contented ourselves with searching for indirect evidence — assessing the planet for signs that it might once have had the conditions necessary for life to happen. That's important, and it will make direct evidence of life more believable if we ever do find it, but it's not quite the same thing.

But now, DNA sequencing tools have become portable enough (and drilling technology has become powerful enough) that some scientists and Craig Ventner think we could send a probe to Mars which could find buried traces of actual DNA protected in the dirt and sequence that DNA on site.

It's also possible that life hitched a ride between Earth and Mars in their early days. Asteroid impacts have sent about a billion tonnes of rock careering between the two planets, potentially carrying DNA or its building blocks. That could mean that any genetic material on Mars is similar enough to DNA that we have a chance of finding it using standard tests.

Even if we don't, we can set up future sequencers to look for molecules that use alternative sugars or chemical letters in the genetic code. "We're not there yet, but it's not a fundamental limitation," says Chris Carr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works on the NASA-backed Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes.

Read the rest of the story at New Scientist


  1. Although cool, I don’t think this is the best way to look for life. You’re restricting the definition even further, when in sending these things out you should be making it broader since the environment is broader.

    1.  Exactly, who said it’s going to be aminos?  Maybe it’s some other weird crap nobody’s heard of yet.

    2. Agreed, I don’t think anybody who has thought about it would expect separate alien life to have DNA. It is a good way to check if any terrestrial life has made it there, though.

  2. If we want to find life, we should go to Europa. I know Mars is fun because it is close, but if I were to bet between a moon with an ocean covered with ice vs a dry planet that had its atmosphere and oceans stripped off billions of years ago, I would have to go with the former. If there is life in the Solar System outside of the Earth, then it is probably on Europa. Playing this game of luck trying to find an organism that died within the last million years on Mars so we can sequence its DNA is silly. Just go to Europa and drill.

    1. It would be cool to find evidence of past life (or even current life) on Mars, but given what we know of the place, you can make some pretty solid bets on what you are going to find.  You are going to find very simple life forms, probably long since dead.  Further, there is going to be controversy over whether or not we are even looking at life and not just some interesting chemical reactions that happened during one of Mars brief  (geologically speaking) wet periods.

      Europa on the other hand…  I’m not going to imply that life is likely, but if it is there, it is an environment vastly more stable than Mars and far more conducive to life.  This means that you might not only find some microbes, but something more complex.  Complex life not on earth in a place where the chances of it being a life transplant between Earth… that would rock science to its core.  Any industry or academic that has the word “bio” in it would be clawing their eyes out to get there and set up a base.

      Alas, Europa is hard and Mars is (relatively speaking) easy.  To do, Mars you just chuck a probe a short distance across the vacuum and land a probe in an environment that isn’t all that dissimilar from earth, other than the fact that it is a near vacuum.

      Europa on the other hand is much harder.  You have to toss the probe across a very large vacuum, land on something that is nothing like Earth, and then drill/melt your away through an unknown amount of ice to dump a probe into an unknown substance in an unknown environment, and keep communicating between it and Earth.  

    2. Might not even have to drill.  We could start by going there and just listening.  Full-spectrum listening, hear what we hear.

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