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14 September 2006 The use of biochemical methods in extraterrestrial life detection
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Abstract
Instrument development for in situ extraterrestrial life detection focuses primarily on the ability to distinguish between biological and non-biological material, mostly through chemical analysis for potential biosignatures (e.g., biogenic minerals, enantiomeric excesses). In constrast, biochemical analysis techniques commonly applied to Earth life focus primarily on the exploration of cellular and molecular processes, not on the classification of a given system as biological or non-biological. This focus has developed because of the relatively large functional gap between life and non-life on Earth today. Life on Earth is very diverse from an environmental and physiological point of view, but is highly conserved from a molecular point of view. Biochemical analysis techniques take advantage of this similarity of all terrestrial life at the molecular level, particularly through the use of biologically-derived reagents (e.g., DNA polymerases, antibodies), to enable analytical methods with enormous sensitivity and selectivity. These capabilities encourage consideration of such reagents and methods for use in extraterrestrial life detection instruments. The utility of this approach depends in large part on the (unknown at this time) degree of molecular compositional differences between extraterrestrial and terrestrial life. The greater these differences, the less useful laboratory biochemical techniques will be without significant modification. Biochemistry and molecular biology methods may need to be "de-focused" in order to produce instruments capable of unambiguously detecting a sufficiently wide range of extraterrestrial biochemical systems. Modern biotechnology tools may make that possible in some cases.
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Gene McDonald "The use of biochemical methods in extraterrestrial life detection", Proc. SPIE 6309, Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IX, 630905 (14 September 2006); https://doi.org/10.1117/12.679689
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