07-Dec-2022 - Freie Universität Berlin

New findings could pave the way to detecting the building blocks of life in our solar system

Detecting biomolecules on ocean moons

It would be technically possible for future space missions to detect DNA, lipids, and other bacterial components on ocean moons in our solar system – provided that these building blocks of life do exist beyond Earth. This is the conclusion that has now been reached by an international team of scientists, led by the Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing research group at Freie Universität Berlin. The experimental study was funded by the European Research Council as part of the Consolidator Grant “Habitat-OASIS” and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Astrobiology.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is well-known for the cryovolcanic plumes it emits into space. These plumes are largely comprised of ice grains that come from an ocean of water located deep below the moon’s frozen surface. Similar processes presumably also occur on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space probes can then analyze these ice grains using impact ionization mass spectrometers, providing insights into the composition of the subsurface ocean water. In novel laboratory experiments, scientists at Freie Universität Berlin successfully simulated the appearance of building blocks of bacteria in ice grain mass spectra for the first time. “In our experiments we demonstrate that future spacecraft would have the technology to be able to detect DNA, lipids, and even metabolic intermediates of these bacteria, provided that such molecules are present in the sampled ice grains,” explains Dr. Fabian Klenner, one of the lead authors of the study. “This would be possible even if the biomolecules were present in only a few ice grains at very low concentrations.”

The scientists analyzed two different types of bacteria as part of their study and found that some of the biomolecules under investigation were clearly distinct, leaving different biological “fingerprints” in the mass spectra depending on the type of bacteria. “This not only means that we can identify bacterial components on extraterrestrial ocean worlds, it also means we can distinguish different types of bacteria from each other,” emphasizes Dr. Klenner.

With NASA’s Europa Clipper mission scheduled to launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October 2024, the results of this study couldn’t have come at a better time. After all, the spacecraft will carry an impact ionization mass spectrometer on its mission, with the Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing group at Freie Universität Berlin playing a significant role in planning and later analyzing the data produced by this equipment. Now that it has been confirmed that the technology is capable of detecting the building blocks of life, the results of the mission have the potential to be very interesting indeed.

The international study was conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Zurich, The Open University in Milton Keynes, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and Leipzig University.

Freie Universität Berlin

Recommend news PDF version / Print

Share on

Facts, background information, dossiers
  • DNA
  • lipids
  • bacteria
More about Freie Universität Berlin
  • News

    New research sheds light on the role of proteins and how synapses work

    Synapses are the power junctions that allow living creatures to function. Popularly associated with learning and memory, they play a more fundamental role in our existence by regulating everything from breathing, sleeping and waking and other bodily functions. Loss of synapses and synapse f ... more

    Investigating micelles, as easy as ABC

    German scientists have used cryogenic transmission electron microscopy to investigate the fluorinated domains within ABC triblock copolymer micelles. Christoph Böttcher from Freie Universität Berlin, André Laschewsky from Universität Potsdam, and their colleagues, have shown using cryo-tran ... more

    Metallosupramolecular assemblies: Unravelling the truth

    Christoph Schalley and his colleagues from Freie Universität Berlin use electrospray ionization Fourier-transform ion-cyclotron-resonance (ESI-FTICR) to provide new insights into metallo-supramolecular reaction mechanisms. ESI-FTICR mass spectroscopy (MS) can be used on isolated compounds t ... more