Time-lapse shot of an osteoblast cell on the surface of a cantilever. (via EPFL & PNAS.org)
French scientists from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created a new nanosensor that can detect life forms as small as bacteria. They are currently planning on pitching their new technology to NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) for development of a grid of nanosensors that can be launched with future probes to detect extraterrestrial life. The technology is exciting and would be more accurate than current sensors and methods of gaining data from extraterrestrial planets.
At the moment, probes like Philae gather chemical data in order to find out the chemical makeup of the terrain or the atmosphere. Then, scientists simply assume that if a planet has an atmosphere similar to ours that life could-possibly-maybe exist there. However, who knows what other type of atmospheres could sustain other types of life forms. So, rather than making inferences, this device would be able to tell you if there were actual, living, microscopic, life forms anywhere. Hence, the future possibilities of this device are plenty, but space exploration is its first stop.
Of course, if we discovered larger life forms like deer or intelligent aliens, then it would be much easier to detect, but that probably won’t happen so long as we are confined to exploring within our own solar system.
This nanosensor has a deceptively simple construction and function which make it viable. It basically involves a cantilever and a laser motion sensor. Any living cells on the cantilever will produce mini-vibrations of the cantilever that will be detected by the laser motion sensor. So, simply, when there are living cells moving around, the motion sensor will detect vibrations. When the cells are dead, then no vibrations will be detected. The team tested their sensor with osteoblast cells which they later killed and found their sensor to be very accurate at detecting whether the cells were alive or dead. The sensor should also be able to detect using a scale from 0-500 how many bacteria are present (guesstimating). Greater vibrations equals greater living cells, I suppose.
In a more impressive slant, the sensor should also be able to detect different types of living organisms present and isolate their data using vibration signatures, but you'll have to see their published findings in PNAS to figure out how well they did with that feature.
However, I don't know how the team will control and weed out vibrations caused by environment activity (I'm thinking wind and movement) from those caused by living cells. The environment on the surface of Jupiter's moons will be decisively different from the surface of a laboratory table in a controlled, earth-bound environment.
For more Earthly applications of the sensor, the team is thinking that it could be used in clinical drug trials, particularly for cancer medication. In theory, if the cantilever were dipped in cancer cells, then had the pharmaceuticals applied, the sensor should be able to detect whether any cells were killed through variations in vibration.
It will probably take some time before this sensor gets adopted and perfected for larger-scale, real-world missions but I wouldn't be surprised if the next space probes were truly able to detect life on Mars.
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