Sniffing Out E.T.
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SNIFFING OUT E.T.
The Latest Device for Finding E.T. Is a Nose of Sorts
By Lee Dye
July 13 We've looked for E.T. but haven't seen him, and we've listened but
haven't heard him, so now scientists are working on a plan to see if they
can "sniff" him out.
It's not exactly as though they expect to detect his under-tentacle
deodorant. Instead, they hope to inhale a few molecules on some distant
celestial body and see if those molecules are specific proteins that bear
the clear signature of life.
Library of Life
It's all the brainchild of Marilyn Fogel, senior scientist at the Carnegie
Institution of Washington, and she has a lot of work laid out for her in the
years to come. First, she has to build a complete library of heavy
molecules, such as proteins, here on Earth. Then, she needs to show which
molecules resulted from non-biological processes and which are proteins that
show the presence of life.
"This will be five years of work," Fogel says, and that's just for the first
stage. After completing her "library," Fogel expects a device similar to the
one she is using for her ambitious project to be shipped off to Mars or some
other object in our solar system to see what it can find.
It all began about three years ago when she was a member of the Space
Studies Board of the National Research Council, the research arm of the
National Academy of Sciences. The board was being briefed by NASA on plans
to bring back a sample from Mars to see if it contained any evidence of
"This was very disturbing to me," she says, because she thought NASA had put
the cart before the horse. It would make more sense, she concluded, to come
up with some sort of gadget that could do the same thing while still on the
surface of Mars.
Without doing that first, she asked NASA, how could you know which samples
were worth bringing back?
It would also be a lot cheaper than hauling a bag full of rocks back from
Mars that might turn out to be of little value. But unfortunately no one
knew just how to isolate and analyze proteins on the surface of Mars without
shipping an entire laboratory to the Red Planet.
A DNA Nose
So Fogel set out to find a way to do just that. She knew she needed
something similar to DNA microchips that can do thousands of reactions on a
very small surface, but she needed it to work on proteins, the building
blocks of life. All living tissue contains proteins.
As luck would have it, a California firm, Ciphergen Inc., was developing an
instrument for biomedical research that could fill the bill. The instrument,
which became available just last year, consists of tiny, thin strips of
metal coated with different chemically active molecules that can extract and
identify other molecules, including proteins, from complex mixtures.
Think of it as a hypersensitive nose.
Such a device, Fogel believed, could "sniff out" the clues she was looking
She wrote a proposal that was immediately accepted by NASA's National
Astrobiology Institute, an interdisciplinary consortium at the Ames Research
Center south of San Francisco that is dedicated to the search for
extraterrestrial life. The equipment is now at Carnegie's Geophysical
Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
"I'm right at the beginning, and I think it's very exciting," says Fogel, an
astrobiologist who has spent many years studying how molecules are affected
by biological processes.
The device, called a "time of flight mass spectrometer," isolates molecules,
and then separates them according to weight. Some molecules are very light,
such as amino acid. A typical protein consists of a chain of amino acids,
and is thus much heavier.
Amino acids are essential for life to form, but their presence doesn't
necessarily mean life is there. The presence of protein, on the other hand,
indicates that amino acids have combined to form the basic structure of
So it's those larger molecules, or proteins that bear the clear signature of
But nature can be tricky, as evidenced by the on-going debate over whether
tiny rod-shaped crystals found in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 were formed
by geology or biology. Some heavy molecules can be formed by non-biological
processes, and sorting out which molecules resulted from which process is
the task that now stretches before Fogel.
The problem, as she sees it, is "we don't even have a complete inventory of
proteins here on Earth," so that's the starting point.
"What I intend to do with this instrument is look at things like organic
matter from meteorites, organic matter that comes from my colleagues here
who are doing abiotic [not produced by living organisms] synthesis
experiments" as well as proteins that are an essential part of the cells of
every living substance, she says.
In a few years, she hopes to have a complete catalogue of which molecules
were formed by which processes, and how they changed through fossilization.
Then, maybe in a decade, the instrument in her lab could be downsized to the
microchip level and sent off to Mars, or possibly Jupiter's moon Europa, to
search for proteins there. If it finds them, Fogel believes she can compare
them to samples in her library and determine their role in a very different
Then, at least, we'll know what we should be looking for.
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