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JPL Developed In Situ Instruments to One Day Search for Life on Europa and Enceladus

MDL News & Trends

JPL Developed In Situ Instruments to One Day Search for Life on Europa and Enceladus

During the last decade, JPL has made great progress towards the development of portable instruments for in situ detection of organics. The MDL instrument combines microchip electrophoresis (ME) with laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) detection for a powerful technique that allows the analysis of a wide range of relevant biomarkers with extreme sensitivity. JPL is pushing this technology forward with the goal of one day implementing ME-LIF on a future spaceflight mission. MDL has developed the current state-of-the-art instrument integrating ME-LIF detection and automation capabilities: the Chemical Laptop.

The Chemical Laptop is capable of performing liquid-based analysis of multiple samples in an automated fashion in the field. This truly portable instrument is also extremely sensitive, allowing the detection of traces of organic molecules that could be present on Europa or other destinations in the solar system. This year, the instrument was tested for the first time outside the laboratory by performing analysis on amino acids in green rust. The Chemical Laptop was placed on top of a rover in the Mars Yard at JPL as proof of concept.

Current research is focused on incorporating additional features to the existing Chemical Laptop, such as the capability of looking at solid samples and performing pre-concentration on-chip. MDL modified the microfluidic architecture to integrate a filter and confined the sample to one section of the microchip. This proof of concept is a simple demonstration of how this technology could be used to perform extractions on-chip. Following extraction, the sample could be routed to another area of the microchip for pre-concentration employing trapped beads. JPL is also developing new methods for the analysis of chiral amino acids on-chip.

More information can be found online at:

Close Encounters of the Fatty Acid Kind

MDL researchers demonstrated nonaqueous labeling and separation of the full range of short to long saturated fatty acids (C2 to C30) for the first time on a microfluidic device. A new fluorescent dye, Pacific Blue hydrazide, labels the carboxylic acid in a two-step, one-pot reaction to enable detection via laser-induced fluorescence at 405 nm excitation. Limits of detection for C10 to C30 acids range from 0.9 to 5.7 μM. Fatty acids were successfully quantified in a sediment sample from the ‘Snake Pit’ hydrothermal system of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, demonstrating the potential of this method to help characterize microbial communities through targeted biomarker analysis. Such a technique could also be utilized to differentiate between abiotic and biotic compounds in the search for life beyond Earth.

To learn more about MDL’s fatty acid analysis, go to:

A comprehensive discussion of the role that microchip electrophoresis (ME) instrumentation could play in future NASA missions of exploration is presented, as well as the current barriers that must be overcome to make this type of chemical investigation possible. Described is how ME would be able to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge of the potential for past, present, or future life beyond Earth. Despite the great promise of ME for ultrasensitive portable chemical analysis, to date, it has never been used on a robotic mission of exploration to another world. A current snapshot of the technology readiness level (TRL) of ME instrumentation is provided, where the TRL is the NASA systems engineering metric used to evaluate the maturity of technology, and its fitness for implementation on missions. It is explained how the NASA flight implementation process would apply specifically to ME instrumentation, and outline the scientific and technology development issues that must be addressed for ME analyses to be performed successfully on another world.

To learn more about MDL’s microchip electrophoresis instrumentation, go to: