Enabling the search for signs of life in space

Enabling the search for signs of life in space

December 5, 2014
in Category: Astronomy
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Enabling the search for signs of life in space

Imagine a huge laboratory filled with people and equipment shrinking to fit on a small chip the size of a 1 cent coin. Scientists on Earth use labs on chips for medical tests and other research; now, an EU-funded project is customizing these chips for use in space.

Lab-on-a-chip technology allows chemical and biological assays — previously conducted on large pieces of laboratory equipment — to be performed on a small glass plate with fluid channels, known as microfluidic capillaries. Chemicals and fluid samples are mixed, diluted, separated and controlled using electrical circuits embedded in the chip.

Since current commercial devices are not designed to work in space, the ‘Photonic biosensor for space application‘ (PBSA) project is designing a set of unique chips along with a miniaturised controller and analysis unit. These complex diagnostic chips will allow testing of all genes and DNA responsible for determining the traits of a particular organism. They will also be able to detect molecules of interest.The chips are made with the same micro-fabrication technique used to print circuits on computer chips: photonic integration. The construction of optical circuits that unite discrete components, including optical switches and arrayed waveguide gratings, can deliver tremendous miniaturisation and lead to lower cost and more efficient instruments.PBSA partners began by developing and refining the fabrication process for producing building blocks for the photonic chips, including a bio printer. Within the new devices, they have engineered a network of channels with multiple reaction and detection chambers to test different biomarkers simultaneously. Microfluidic functional elements were integrated with reagents such as detection antibodies and analyte molecules.Weighing just under 1 kg and with dimensions not exceeding 10x10x10 cm, the first prototype is ready for testing. To find its way to space, it will have to prove that it can tolerate extreme radiation and temperatures, operate at low power, and perform sensitive analyses swiftly with minimal user intervention and servicing.

Although designed with a view to assisting the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars mission, use of the PBSA device in the remote settings of Antarctica is one of many potential applications of the technology. As lab-on-chip technology evolves, new biomarkers diagnostics will also improve pathogen detection in working environments and industrial settings.

Provided by Cordis

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