Searching for life in the Universe: unconventional methods for an unconventional problem


  • K. H. Nealson University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • A. Tsapin Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, USA
  • M. Storrie-Lombardi Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, USA


life detection, Mars, systems complexity, chemical analyses, life’s thermodynamics, life’s kinetics


The search for life, on and off our planet, can be done by conventional methods with which we are all familiar. These methods are sensitive and specific, and are often capable of detecting even single cells. However, if the search broadens to include life that may be different (even subtly different) in composition, the methods and even the approach must be altered. Here we discuss the development of what we call non-earthcentric life detection – detecting life with methods that could detect life no matter what its form or composition. To develop these methods, we simply ask, can we define life in terms of its general properties and particularly those that can be measured and quantified? Taking such an approach we can search for life using physics and chemistry to ask questions about structure, chemical composition, thermodynamics, and kinetics. Structural complexity can be searched for using computer algorithms that recognize complex structures. Once identified, these structures can be examined for a variety of chemical traits, including elemental composition, chirality, and complex chemistry. A second approach involves defining our environment in terms of energy sources (i.e., reductants), and oxidants (e.g. what is available to eat and breathe), and then looking for areas in which such phenomena are inexplicably out of chemical equilibrium. These disequilibria, when found, can then be examined in detail for the presence of the structural and chemical complexity that presumably characterizes any living systems. By this approach, we move the search for life to one that should facilitate the detection of any earthly life it encountered, as well as any non-conventional life forms that have structure, complex chemistry, and live via some form of redox chemistry.






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