NASA funds $7 million for UT researchers’ project to detect extraterrestrial life

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Photo Credit: Andrew Choi | Daily Texan Staff

UT researchers are among a team of scientists around the world who received $7 million from NASA to work on a project to detect extraterrestrial life.

“NASA’s mission is to explore the universe, and one thing that I believe most NASA scientists truly find fascinating and actually are convinced of is that there is life on other planets,” chemistry professor Eric Anslyn said. “The title of this project is Agnostic Biosignatures, and the term agnostic means no assumptions of any kind will go into what will be the chemistries we encounter.”

Lingyu Zeng, a chemistry postdoctoral fellow, said in an email a primary goal of the project is to develop technology for life detection on potential life-bearing bodies in space, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and the planet Mars. 

“This will have near-term to immediate application to missions designed to look for extant life, from missions at Mars to those targeting the far reaches of the solar system,” Zeng said. 

 

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The main concept behind the project is life on other planets, though it may have different molecules, must be very complex. This is a notion Anslyn credits to Lee Cronin, a professor at the University of Glasgow. 

“Lee has put forth a hypothesis that I think is a pretty unique, fascinating one: There will be a certain level of chemical complexity … and beyond some level of complexity you would say — life had to create that,” Anslyn said. “There is no way those molecules would ever be formed without life having
generated them.”

On Earth, life is made up of three classes of molecules — DNA, proteins and carbohydrates, but life elsewhere probably expresses itself with very different chemistry, Anslyn said. 

“The chances that life elsewhere in the universe uses nucleic acids and proteins I think is close to zero,” Anslyn said. “(That) different chemistry will have evolved in every world is the assumption. But if you look at the life molecules of our planet, they are pretty complicated.” 

Heather Graham, a geochemist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the research at UT could help distinguish life from other extraterrestrial objects. 

“If we get a particle from Europa, we can use the devices being developed at UT to see if it isn’t just a rock,” Graham said. 

Graham added that NASA is involved with field testing the technology in deep subsurfaces that have been out of communication with the surface of the Earth for a billion years. 

“Even though our work is focused on off-world life detection, one way people think about that is through the unexplored portions of our earth, where there is life that doesn’t follow the typical patterns,” Graham said. 

UT researchers are creating experimental techniques to recognize this molecular complexity by using computers trained to recognize complicated molecules, which could be indicative of life, Anslyn said.

“It’s an exciting project because I’m making contributions to explore the Agnostic Biosignatures, which sounds like the stuff in science fiction,” Zeng said.