UH-developed tool can detect ancient life on Earth and beyond

University of Hawaiʻi
fish fossil
White light (a) and Biofinder (b) images of Green River formation fish fossil. (Photo credit: Misra, et al.)

An innovative scientific instrument developed by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researchers is expected to be a game changer in the search for life—existing or extinct—on Earth and other planets.

The instrument, called a Compact Color Biofinder, uses specialized cameras to scan large areas for fluorescence signals of biological materials like amino acids, fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants, microbes, proteins and lipids. The instrument has been successfully used to detect these bio-residues in fish fossils from the 34–56 million-year-old Green River rock formation located in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The findings are published in Nature Scientific Reports.

uh-developed tool standing
Biofinder looking at fossil sample. (Photo credit: A. Misra)

“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” said Anupam Misra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “At present, there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime. Additional strengths of the Biofinder are that it works from a distance of several meters, takes video and can quickly scan a large area.”

The search for life on other planets is one of the major goals of exploration missions conducted by NASA and other international space agencies.

“If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and dead for many millions of years,” said Misra. “We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.”

Misra and his colleagues are applying for an opportunity to send the Biofinder on a future NASA mission.

“The Biofinder’s capabilities would be critical for NASA’s Planetary Protection program, for the accurate and no-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards to or from planet Earth,” said Sonia J. Rowley, the team biologist and co-author on the study.

“The detection of such biomarkers would constitute groundbreaking evidence for life outside of planet Earth,” said Misra. Though the Biofinder was first developed in 2012 by Misra, advances supported by the NASA Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO) program culminated in the latest color version of the compact Biofinder.

Finding evidence of biological residue in a vast planetary landscape is an enormous challenge. The team tested the Biofinder’s detection abilities on the ancient fish fossils in the Green River formation and corroborated the results through laboratory spectroscopy analysis, scanning electron microscopy and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.

“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” said Misra. “However, our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time.”

See more Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology stories.

–By Marcie Grabowski

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