Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they're working a DNA sequencer they hope will one day be sent to Mars to analyze soil and ice samples for traces of DNA and other genetic material.
The heart of the instrument -- a DNA-sequencing microchip -- has been exposed to radiation doses similar to what might be expected during a robotic expedition to Mars, after which it analyzed a test strain of E. coli and successfully identified its genetic sequence, MIT reported Thursday.
The results show the microchip can survive as long as two years in space, long enough to reach Mars and gather data for a year and a half, said Christopher Carr, a research scientist in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
A DNA-sequencing instrument on the surface of Mars would have to withstand temperature swings and steady exposure to space radiation, he said.
"Over time on Mars, a chip's performance could degrade, reducing our ability to get sequence data. The chip might have a higher error rate, or could fail to function at all," Carr said. "We did not see any of these issues [in our tests]. ... Once this chip has been through two years of a Mars mission, it still will be able to sequence."
Carr said DNA sequencing could be conducted in places such as Jupiter's moon Europa, where liquid oceans may harbor signs of life, or on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn thought to be in a potential habitable zone that has much less intense radiation.
"I do think we'll see DNA sequencing in space at some point," he said. "Hopefully we'll get a chance to be a part of that."