MIT Researchers are Building an Instrument to Study Genetics on Mars

Sarah Scoles | Quartz
Monday, December 2, 2019

MIT EAPS research scientists Chris Carr and (former) Alexandra Pontefract from the Zuber group trek to some of the world's most inhospitable places in search of unusual life--an analog the MIT SETG team uses to help them detect alien life in the future.

Read the full story in Quartz

Astrobiologists Carr and Pontefract visit remote locations, like a very briney lakes, a polar desert and acid-leaking mines, places that might resemble alien environments -- in search of evidence of strange life, reports Sarah Scoles for Quartz. Last year, they were in British Columbia collecting samples. They're part of a program SETG, the Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes. Working with the NASA astrobiology program, the MIT Media Lab and biotech companies, SETG is developing an instrument to detect different forms of genetic information, like those found in these desolate areas. Ultimately, the goal is to develop "autonomous tools that could someday travel to Mars, collect samples, extract their genetic material, and sequence it—no humans required."

“'Testing in these analog environments,' says Carr, where the chemistry and (or) mineralogy resemble those one might find on planets that are not Earth, 'allows us to validate methods of isolating genetic material.' That’s why SETG’s upcoming prototype has to go out into the field, too."

"While development isn’t done, the SETG instrument is nearing completion. 'We’re taking the pieces and putting them together,' says Carr. The team is planning to take the real deal to the Atacama desert in Chile in April 2020—the final proof of concept required before NASA sees the team as ready for a real space mission, with industry along for the ride."

"Maybe, someday not too long from now, SETG will find earthlings’ ancient cousins in the alien red dirt. Maybe probably not. But, says Carr, 'it seems likely enough that we ought to check.'” 

An acidic stream in the Andes Mountains can stand in for the harsh conditions that may have fostered different forms of life on Mars.