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Detection of bio-signatures in space research using a new and innovative measurement technique based on laser desorption ionisation mass spectrometry

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BioTec (Detection of bio-signatures in space research using a new and innovative measurement technique based on laser desorption ionisation mass spectrometry)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

The detection of signatures of life, extinct or extant, on planetary bodies in our Solar System beyond Earth has challenged humankind since the first Viking mission on Mars in the 1970s. Detection of life, however, is extremely complex and depends on a set of various parameters, ranging from the selection of suitable regions that may contain extinct or extant biosignatures to instruments that have the measurement capabilities for their conclusive detection. So far, mainly bulk measurement techniques, which measure a defined sample volume at once, were applied in space exploration. Signatures of life that are present at low concentrations are difficult to identify using such techniques because of, e.g. interferences of the surrounding host material. Therefore, novel techniques that allow investigation of putative biosignatures with high spatial resolution are of high importance for future missions devoted for the detection of life.
The aim of BioTec was to elaborate a simple and robust measurement protocol using Laser Ablation Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (LIMS) for the detection of biomolecules such as amino acids. The measurement methodology was elaborated through a combination of field research, application of state-of-the-art laboratory measurement techniques, and the application of specific substrates that allow desorption of biomolecules using LIMS.
BioTec consisted of five scientific and non-scientific work packages, which are discussed in more detail in the following.

Sampling strategies and measurement techniques. Introduction in sample handling and preparation, in biomolecule extraction procedures, and in the operation of state-of-art laboratory techniques such as Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) and as Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS), allowed successful chemical analysis of the biomolecule content of various materials from different Mars-like environments (e.g. permafrost samples collected at Yedoma region, Russia, or samples collected at Atacama Desert, Chile). The studies showed that no single field site can mimic the Mars environment accurately. Rather, a composite of different field sites that mimic different environments in Martian history can give more conclusive evidence. A field trip to the Atacama Desert could be organised and allowed to acquire expertise in field research at an extreme environment. Together with a research group from NASA, Mars-like analogues were collected for subsequent laboratory analysis. With this knowledge, future field trips can be organised independently, which is of high value to my personal scientific career.

Measurement Methodologies using LIMS. Measurements conducted on individual amino acids dropcasted on various sample substrates (e.g. parylene-C and gold-coated steel) using three different LIMS systems that were equipped with different laser systems (ns- to fs laser systems) and operated at different wavelengths (UV to IR) allowed to elaborate successfully a measurement protocol for the detection of amino acids. In comparison to the LIMS systems coupled to a fs systems, the LIMS system comprising a miniature mass analyser coupled to a ns UV laser system and amino acids dropcasted on a simple stainless-steel holder showed superior performance in amino acid detection. Through the measurements conducted on 20 individual amino acids, simple amino acid-unique fragments could be identified. These unique fragments allow accurate identification and quantification down to concentrations at the level of femtomol mm-2. In contrast, measurements conducted with LIMS systems that are coupled to fs laser system showed severe biomolecule fragmentation which limits the amino acid identification significantly. The successfully elaborated measurement protocol was recently submitted to the peer-reviewed journal Nature Scientific Reports and, during witting of this report, the manuscript was accepted.

Dissemination and Exploitation. The dissemination and exploitation strategy consisted of i) publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, ii) contributions at conferences, and iii) knowledge transfer to academic and industrial actors. Through BioTec, I (co-)authored six peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals, and had three invited talks and nine contributions at conferences. The knowledge transfer to the space group at the University in Bern, Switzerland and to the LIS Laboratories at ESA, ESTEC (Robert Lindner) was realised successfully through periodic meetings. The knowledge transfer to the company IONIGHT could not be realised as the company terminated their business mid-2017.

Public Engagement. As planned in the fellowship, public engagement activities consisted of laboratory visits for students at the secondary level as well as radio interviews (Radio Freiburg, Switzerland). Both were successfully realised. The radio interviews were especially successful. Originally, two live radio interviews were planned. However, the first radio streaming resulted in such a positive feedback from the public (~57’000 active listeners per day), the program organisers decided to design and stream a complete program around space science (program name “RadioFr Universum”). In total, nine 1-hour live streams were produced and streamed.

Training. During this fellowship, I successfully acquired expertise in the application of e.g. LC- and GC-MS instrumentation and its data analysis, was introduced in complex protocols for the extraction of biomolecules from geological material, and attended three workshops to improve my current soft skills. The learned soft-skill strategies could be successfully applied e.g. at conferences or discussion with supervised students.

In summary, the work packages were successfully concluded and mitigation strategies could be successfully applied when required.
The biosignature detection capabilities of LIMS, explored through BioTec, allowed me to participate in extraordinary research programmes, which could not have been predicted at the beginning of the project.
This includes the participation in NASA’s Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS), which is a four-year research programme. The aim of ARADS is to test and validate promising life detection technologies for future space exploration missions. The research results generated through BioTec and the participation in NASA’s Atacama field trip resulted in an invitation by NASA to participate as Co-I in an upcoming ARADS mission by providing the LIMS system. NASA HQ evaluated the first part of the proposal very successfully. A final decision is expected at beginning of 2020.
Further, because the LIMS system also meets requirements for the detection of biomolecules on a potential NASA Europa Lander Mission, an instrument proposal may be prepared for the beginning of 2020, to propose the LIMS system for deployment on such a mission.
Overall, the measurement results achieved using LIMS through the BioTec fellowship demonstrated the unique capabilities of LIMS for life detection. A positive detection of biomarkers on future space exploration missions, and hence a conclusive answer to the question “Are we alone?” would not only have a significant impact on science, it would have a tremendous impact on society as well.