Hand holding Earth while comet approaches

Capillary electrophoresis is an analytical separation technique in which charged species are separated, based on charge and size, by their different rates of migration in an electric field. The technique of capillary electrophoresis has been around since the early 1980s. It is used, inter alia, for sequencing the human genome. Now, the scientists propose that this technique can be tailored for extraterrestrial life search.

The scientists believe that capillary electrophoresis will speed up the quest for alien life.

Simplicity and Effectiveness

One of the NASA highest priorities is the quest for alien life. There are already several missions which deal with it. Perhaps the most well-known are NASA’s Curiosity rover used for sample analysis at Mars. Yet, this method is quite complicated as demands a lot of effort, time and equipment. Therefore, the scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California recommend capillary electrophoresis to be tailored for this kind of missions. The main reason is the simplicity and effectiveness. Namely, instrumentation for capillary electrophoresis is quite simple and it is 10,000 times more effective that methods currently used.

Amino acids and a planet overlooking a lake
Amino acids are fundamental building blocks of terrestrial life as well as ubiquitous byproducts of abiotic reactions.

They proposed this technique to use for looking for amino acids, which are the essential for all life on Earth, thus for the extraterrestrial. Researchers conducted the experiment by using the samples from Mono Lake in California as the best imitation for outer space ground, due to high alkaline content. They manage to divide and analyzed 17 different types of amino acids and to determine which ones coming from living organisms – the three biosignatures were detected.

Now, the using of capillary electrophoresis for this purposes has shown that is easy to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources versus living ones. The methods used on salt-rich waters of Mono Lake can be highly applicable on the ocean worlds of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.