Could Rock DNA Reveal Life On Other Planets?

Feb. 10, 2022

When I was a kid my family often went camping. My brother and I were tasked with finding big rocks from a nearby river to build a fire pit. We’d keep a fire going all weekend and come Monday morning, we would pour water on the fire to ensure it was completely extinguished. One weekend our fire-safety ritual unearthed great mystery. Once the water hit one of the big, nearly perfectly round rocks, it split in two revealing a beautiful glittery-rose interior. My brother and I were certain it was a space rock and we each took a half; we watched a lot of “Lost In Space” reruns back then so what we lacked in intelligence we gained in imagination.

The memory of my dalliance with alien life rushed back full force when I read about researchers experimenting with ways to extract amino acids from porous rocks to detect life on other planets.

Jessica Torres, a doctoral student studying chemistry at San Diego State University (SDSU), collaborated with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge in 2019 and is currently developing novel chemical solvents specifically made to operate where water and other common solvents like alcohols and acetone would not be viable -- specifically other planets. Previous research has looked for evidence of other life forms in water and soil, but not from solid materials.

According to a release on the SDSU website, Torres and her advisor, Chris Harrison, use a process called capillary electrophoresis, which involves separating molecules by passing them through a liquid-filled tube narrower than an average human hair. A laser attached at the end of the tube is used to illuminate a glow-in-the-dark molecule attached to an amino acid. When an amino acid passes in front of the laser, a sensor will show a spike of the laser-induced glow.

The team plans to test their process on sample rocks from the moon, the Mars-like Atacama Desert and Mono Lake, which is two to three times saltier than Earth’s oceans.

“What we’ll bring with this new solvent will add flexibility to analysis on Earth and beyond,” said Harrison in the release. “Sometimes it is hard to see the impact of fundamental science until you get it in the hands of others and see which problems you’ve already solved for them.”

You better bet your allowance that I am going to search my parents’ house for my half of the space rock and check on FedEx rates to ship it to Torres in San Diego. If there’s evidence of other-worldly DNA, I want dibs on naming rights of my rock. To honor my pre-teen self, I will dub it Danger Will Robinson Rock -- DWR Rock for short.

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s Executive Editor. She no longer camps but still looks for signs of extraterrestrial life in ordinary things. You can email her your favorite “Lost In Space” episode at [email protected]

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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