First-of-its-kind Biofinder could be game changer in detecting extraterrestrial life

A new high-tech device unlike any other could be a game changer in detecting extraterrestrial life. Researchers from the University of Hawaii Manoa developed what they call the Compact Color Biofinder.

The Biofinder’s sensitivity was able to detect the bio-residue in fish fossils from the 34-56 million year-old Green River formation. Many biological materials have “strong organic fluorescence signals that can be detected by specialized scanning cameras.”

“The Biofinder is the first system of its kind,” says Anupam Mistra, lead instrument developer and researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, in a statement. “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.

Misra first developed the Biofinder in 2012, however the latest color version of the compact Biofinder was supported by advances from the NASA Picasso program.

Biofinder
Battery operated Biofinder looking at fossil sample from 50 cm distance. (Credit: Anupam Misra, UH SOEST.)

Since finding evidence of biological residue in a vast planetary landscape is an expansive challenge, the team decided to test the Biofinder’s detection abilities on the ancient Green River fish fossils. The team was able to validate the results through laboratory spectroscopy analysis, scanning electron microscopy and fluorescence imaging microscopy.

“There are some unknowns regarding how quickly bio-residues are replaced by minerals in the fossilization process,” says 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.”

Misra is hoping to send the Biofinder on future NASA missions.

“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,” says 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.”

Biofinder
Biofinder detection of biological resides in fish fossil. (a) White light image of a Green River formation fish fossil (b) Fluorescence image of the fish fossil obtained by the Biofinder (c) Close-up white light image of the fish fossil cross-section (d) Fluorescence image showing strong bio-fluorescence from the fish remains. (Credit: Misra, et al., 2022)

“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, says Sonia Rowley, the team biologist and study co-author.

One of NASA’s goals is to find existing or extinct forms of life in space.

“The detection of such biomarkers would constitute groundbreaking evidence for life outside of planet Earth,” says Misra.

The study is published in Nature Scientific Reports.

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Matt Higgins

A tortured Philadelphia sports fan, Matt Higgins was previously the digital managing editor for CBSPhilly.com. He has been working in news for the last 15 years, including the last ten in digital.

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