An Article in Astrobiology

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Before the first humans depart for Mars in the next decade, hundreds of tons of martian water-ice must be harvested to produce propellant for the return vehicle, a process known as in situ resource utilization (ISRU). We describe here an instrument, the Agnostic Life Finder (ALF), that is an inexpensive life-detection add-on to ISRU. ALF exploits a well-supported view that informational genetic biopolymers in life in water must have two structural features: (1) Informational biopolymers must carry a repeating charge; they must be polyelectrolytes. (2) Their building blocks must fit into an aperiodic crystal structure; the building blocks must be size-shape regular. ALF exploits the first structural feature to extract polyelectrolytes from ∼10 cubic meters of mined martian water by applying a voltage gradient perpendicularly to the water’s flow. This gradient diverts polyelectrolytes from the flow toward their respective electrodes (polyanions to the anode, polycations to the cathode), where they are captured in cartridges before they encounter the electrodes. There, they can later be released to analyze their building blocks, for example, by mass spectrometry or nanopore. Upstream, martian cells holding martian informational polyelectrolytes are disrupted by ultrasound. To manage the (unknown) conductivity of the water due to the presence of salts, the mined water is preconditioned by electrodialysis using porous membranes. ALF uses only resources and technology that must already be available for ISRU. Thus, life detection is easily and inexpensively integrated into SpaceX or NASA ISRU missions.