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Tool Can Detect Ancient ‘Bio-Residues’ on Earth And Beyond

July 3, 2022, 10:08 AM HST
* Updated July 3, 10:10 AM
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White light (a) and Biofinder (b) images of Green River formation fish fossil. (Photos courtesy of University of Hawaiʻi)

An innovative tool developed by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researchers could be a critical part of future NASA missions to detect life — existing or extinct — on Earth and other planets.

The instrument, called a Compact Color Biofinder, uses specialized cameras to scan large areas for fluorescence signals of biological materials such as amino acids, fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, proteins and lipids. It has been used to detect these bio-residues in fish fossils from the Green River rock formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Biofinder looking at fossil sample.

The findings are published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH-Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said in a press release. “At present, there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime. Additional strengths of the Biofinder are that it works from a distance of several meters, takes video and can quickly scan a large area.”

Misra and his colleagues are applying for an opportunity to send the Biofinder on a future NASA mission. The search for life in other places in the galaxy is a major goal of exploration missions conducted by NASA and other international space agencies.

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“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes and dead for many millions of years,” Misra said in the press release. “We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.”

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The Biofinder’s capabilities would be critical for the accurate and non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from Earth, according to Sonia Rowley, the team biologist and co-author on the study.

“The detection of such biomarkers would constitute groundbreaking evidence for life outside of planet Earth,” Misra said in the press release.

Finding evidence of biological residue in a vast planetary landscape is an enormous challenge. The team tested the Biofinder’s detection abilities on the ancient fish fossils in the Green River formation and corroborated the results through laboratory spectroscopy analysis, scanning electron microscopy and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.

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“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” Misra said in the press release. “However, our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time.”

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