A new strategy for analysing fatty acids could one day play a role in determining whether or not life exists on other worlds.
It’s an exciting time in our search for life beyond Earth. New exoplanets are discovered almost daily by the Kepler space observatory. The Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Exploration Rovers have transformed our understanding of the solar system. Finding at least simple microscopic life seems only a matter of time and clues to recognise extraterrestrial microorganisms may come by identifying fatty acids from their cell membranes.
Peter Willis and a team of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, US, have developed a microchip analyser that distinguishes a broad range of fatty acids by the length of their carbon chains. Willis says that this is an important advance because ‘different microorganisms have cell membranes with different carbon chain length signatures.’ Algal fatty acids, for example, tend to be around the C20/C22 mark whereas bacterial fatty acids are typically C16/C18 in length. ‘So by measuring these molecules in an unknown sample we can gain information about what organisms were present, even if the sample is very old and the organisms are no longer alive.’
Microchip nonaqueous capillary electrophoresis of saturated fatty acids using a new fluorescent dye
M. L. Cable, A. M. Stockton, M. F. Mora, K. P. Hand and P. A. Willis
Anal. Methods, 2014, Advance Article