Press Release

Can Biosensors Find Life On Mars?

By SpaceRef Editor
November 27, 2001
Filed under , ,

Is there life on Mars? Thanks to a £60k grant from the Engineering and
Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team from Cranfield
University and the University of Leicester will try and find the answer.

The team, led by Dr David Cullen from Cranfield’s Biotechnology Centre
and Dr Mark Sims at the Space Research Centre at the University of
Leicester, aim to investigate life on Mars by producing prototype
advanced biomimetic sensors. These sensors are planned to fly on a
future robotic Mars exploration.

The sensors use the nanotechnology of molecular imprinted polymers,
where cavities in the polymer surface are moulded to fit a particular
shape of molecule, to detect biologically produced compounds which may
remain stable over millions of years.

The sensor development will take place at Cranfield with space
environment testing at Leicester. The work utilises Prof. Bill Grant’s
expertise at the University of Leicester’s Department of Microbiology
and Immunology in the microbial ecology of extreme environments, in
deciding which types of compounds should be sought out. One group of
microbes known as the Archaea live in extreme environments on Earth
and are thought to be a good model of what life may be like on other
planets. Such organisms are also thought to be able to hibernate over
millions of years in the right kind of geological conditions.

Although Mars today is a cold dry planet it was thought to have been
very much like the early Earth soon after the formation of the solar
system with potentially vast amounts of water and suitable chemistry
and conditions for evolution of life. In recent years, Mars has been
of great interest following the NASA announcement in 1996 of possible
evidence of life inside a meteorite that came from there. This work,
although of a controversial nature, has highlighted the possibilities
of life on Mars.

The planned work should allow the development of very small
instruments i.e. ‘laboratories-on-a-chip’ to be built for future
Mars missions reducing the size of instruments and leading to a
more complete in-situ analysis of samples. Dr Mark Sims, who is also
the Beagle 2 Mars Lander Mission Manager, believes “This kind of
technology-driven development will represent a quantum leap in
sensing biomolecules on another planet”.

Dr David Cullen agrees, “This is an exhilarating time as recent
developments in a host of different disciplines are converging to
make possible both the setting of detailed questions about life on
Mars and the technology to answer them”. He also emphasises that “Not
only does the project offer the possibility of detecting life on Mars
but also promises the spin-out of robust molecular sensor technology
for use in extreme Earth environments, both in natural and industrial
processes”.

Notes for editor

For further details contact:


Dr. David Cullen
Cranfield Biotechnology Centre
Cranfield University
Silsoe, Bedfordshire MK45 4DT
Tel: +44 (0) 1525 86 3539
Email d.cullen@cranfield.ac.uk


Dr. Mark Sims
Space Research Centre
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH
Tel: +44 (0) 116 252 3513
E-mail mrs@star.le.ac.uk


Prof. Bill Grant
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
University of Leicester LE1 7RH
Tel: +44 (0) 116 252 2948
or E-mail wdg1@le.ac.uk


Press and Public Relations Office
University of Leicester
Tel: +44 (0) 116 252 3335
Fax: +44 (0) 116 252 2485
Email: pressoffice@le.ac.uk


For further information on the Beagle 2 project:
http://www.beagle2.com

SpaceRef staff editor.