Saturday, October 20, 2012

The search for DNA on Mars

Our tools to analyze the DNA of living beings has rapidly improved in the last decade, which has resulted in scientists unravelling the genome of various animals, including us human beings. This has lead to a flood of information regarding our genes and function, increasing our understanding of how the body creates its functionality and building blocks. As far as we know now, all existing life is based on DNA. Therefore, in the search of extraterrestrial life, it makes sense to see if we can find traces of genetic material on other planets. DNA pioneer Craig Venter, who was involved in the sequencing project that lead to the first human genome being unravelled, wants to send machinery to Mars, to analyze whether the soil contains traces of DNA, thereby showing that Mars harbours life, either in the present or in the past.

The plan
Searching for DNA on Mars may sound silly, considering that we have so far seen no traces of anything being alive. It could very well be that Mr. Venter is just looking to score with another overly ambitious project, but building a 'DNA harvester' that is shipped off to other planets for the search of life does sound appealing. The next opportunity would be in 2016, when NASA is launching its InSight project.

Basically, what Venter wants to do is send a robot to Mars that analyzes the soil and immediately sequences any DNA it discovers and sends the data back to earth. In a way, this is similar to what NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is currently doing: the Mars machine is currently analyzing the soil of the Red Planet so that we may learn more about the planet's characteristics, and by doing that perhaps discover traces of life. Upgrading future Mars rovers with a DNA sequencing tool would therefore seem like an obvious thing to do. The scientists are currently testing a device that meet the required functionality.
The basic structure of DNA.
Because there are billions of stars and planets in our galaxy and we know there must be billions of other galaxies, it is only reasonable to assume that our earth is not unique in its life-harbouring capabilities. Searching for life elsewhere in the universe is reasonable, but it is important to consider that it may be very different to what we are used to. We know that life on earth cannot exist without DNA. However, this may not be true for life on a different planet in a different solar system, in a different galaxy. Nevertheless, we have to make ends meet with the knowledge we have, which means that searching for DNA-based life is not an unreasonable thing to do. 

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