NASA Biofinder Detects Biological Remains In Green River Fish Fossils From Eocene Epoch At Video Speed


Confirmation of carbon and short-lived biofluorescence in fish fossil. (a) SEM–EDS analysis of the fish fossil cross-section showing that the fossil contains considerable quantities of carbon in comparison to the rock matrix. The rock matrix is rich in silica and has more oxygen than the fish. (b) FLIM image of the fossil cross-section showing strong bio-fluorescence in the fish (shown as false-coloured green-yellow region) with a lifetime of 2.7 ns.

The "Search for life", which may be extinct or extant on other planetary bodies is one of the major goals of NASA planetary exploration missions. Finding such evidence of biological residue in a vast planetary landscape is an enormous challenge.

We have developed a highly sensitive instrument, the "Compact Color Biofinder", which can locate minute amounts of biological material in a large area at video speed from a standoff distance. Here we demonstrate the efficacy of the Biofinder to detect fossils that still possess strong bio-fluorescence signals from a collection of samples.

Fluorescence images taken by the Biofinder instrument show that all Knightia spp. fish fossils analysed from the Green River formation (Eocene, 56.0-33.9 Mya) still contain considerable amounts of biological residues. The biofluorescence images support the fact that organic matter has been well preserved in the Green River formation, and thus, not diagenetically replaced (replaced by minerals) over such a significant timescale.

We further corroborated results from the Biofinder fluorescence imagery through Raman and attenuated total reflection Fourier-transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopies, scanning electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM).

Our findings confirm once more that biological residues can survive millions of years, and that using biofluorescence imaging effectively detects these trace residues in real time. We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies.

Biofinder detects biological remains in Green River fish fossils from Eocene epoch at video speed, Nature (open access)

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