an instrument to discover extraterrestrial life

The Biofinder detects the fluorescence of organic material

The Compact Color Biofinder, to give it its full name, is a scientific instrument. It was developed to detect bioresidues in fossils that are between 34 and 56 million years old. This high-precision device measures the fluorescence emitted by materials.

The functional principle of the Biofinder is based on the detection of fluorescence. Most biological molecules such as proteins, lipids, amino acids, but on a larger scale also fossils, sedimentary rocks, plants and microbes can emit fluorescent signals.

Fluorescence is a phenomenon that occurs when a peripheral electron within an atom is excited and driven to a higher energy level. This excitation is generated by light radiation of natural or artificial origin. The electron is then in an unstable energy level. In order to return to its original state, the electron gives up this excess energy. It emits energy in the form of fluorescence radiation.

A well-known example of fluorescence is in banknotes. When the banknote is exposed to ultraviolet light, which excites the electrons of the atoms that make up the ink’s molecules. Inscriptions appear on the banknote when the electrons return to their ground state.

In the fluorescence range, the wavelength emitted by a molecule, the so-called emission wavelength, is always greater than the wavelength of the excitation radiation. Fluorescent radiation can be detected by special cameras. They are called streak cameras. The Biofinder is equipped with these types of specialized cameras to detect fluorescence in fossils.

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Sensitivity to detect fossil organic matter

Right in the heart of Green River Utah. Each layer represents a year of Earth’s geological history

The Green River Formation in the United States is an Eocene geological formation. It spans the states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. This formation represents the vault for geologists and paleontologists. In fact, the very thin layers of sediment deposited over millennia represent a duration of 6 million years. The average thickness of each layer is 0.18 mm, and one pair of layers corresponds to one year.

Researchers from the University of Hawaii used Biofinder to discover micro-traces of organic matter within these geological strata. Anupam Misra, a researcher at the university and developer of the device, says: “The Biofinder is the first system of its kind. There is currently no other equipment that can detect tiny amounts of bioresidue on rock during the day. Other advantages of the Biofinder are that it works at a distance of several meters and that it records videos. And that it can sweep a large area quickly.”

The Biofinder is not a new device as the first model was developed throughout 2012. Development has made significant progress with the participation and support of NASA and the PICASSO program. The PICASSO program consists of the development of nanosatellites designed to carry out various scientific measurements. They are able to carry gauges of reduced size.

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Find evidence of life elsewhere than on Earth

University of Hawaii researchers have successfully tested Biofinder’s fluorescence radiation detection capabilities on fish fossils found in the Green River Formation in the United States. The results obtained were confirmed by spectroscopic analysis in the laboratory and by electron microscopy.

The search for existing or extinct life on another planet is one of the main goals of the planetary exploration missions of NASA, ESA and other international space agencies. For example, if a rover sent to the planet Mars were outfitted with a biofinder device, researchers would have an impressive tool to quickly scan large areas of the planet. The detection of organic matter by fluorescence would be possible with the smallest amounts of substance.

Sonia J. Rowley, a biologist who was involved in this development, explains this possibility of using the Compact Color Biofinder. “The biofinder’s abilities would be vital to them Planetary Protection Program from NASA for the precise and non-invasive detection of contaminants such as microbes or extraterrestrial biohazards all the way to planet Earth”.

The detection of traces of biological molecules with this technology would undoubtedly be the ultimate proof of the existence of life elsewhere than on Earth. Researchers are just waiting for the opportunity to send their Biofinder instrument on an upcoming NASA mission.

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Source : Misra, AK, Rowley, SJ, Zhou, J. et al., “Biofinder detects biological remains in Green River Eocene Epoch fish fossils at video speed”, Scientific Reports, 12, 10164 (2022), https://doi . org/10.1038/s41598-022-14410-8

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