- Status Report
- February 26, 2024
Toward Detecting Biosignatures of DNA, Lipids, and Metabolic Intermediates from Bacteria in Ice Grains Emitted by Enceladus and Europa
The reliable identification of biosignatures is key to the search for life elsewhere.
On ocean worlds like Enceladus or Europa, this can be achieved by impact ionization mass spectrometers, such as the SUrface Dust Analyzer (SUDA) on board NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission.
During spacecraft flybys, these instruments can sample ice grains formed from subsurface water and emitted by these moons. Previous laboratory analog experiments have demonstrated that SUDA-type instruments could identify amino acids, fatty acids, and peptides in ice grains and discriminate between their abiotic and biotic origins.
Here, we report experiments simulating impact ionization mass spectra of ice grains containing DNA, lipids, and metabolic intermediates extracted from two bacterial cultures: Escherichia coli and Sphingopyxis alaskensis. Salty Enceladan or Europan ocean waters were simulated using matrices with different NaCl concentrations. Characteristic mass spectral signals, such as DNA nucleobases, are clearly identifiable at part-per-million-level concentrations.
Mass spectra of all substances exhibit unambiguous biogenic patterns, which in some cases show significant differences between the two bacterial species. Sensitivity to the biosignatures decreases with increasing matrix salinity. The experimental parameters indicate that future impact ionization mass spectrometers will be most sensitive to the investigated biosignatures for ice grain encounter speeds of 4-6 km/s.
Marie Dannenmann, Fabian Klenner, Janine Bönigk, Miriam Pavlista, Maryse Napoleoni, Jon Hillier, Nozair Khawaja, Karen Olsson-Franci, Morgan L Cable, Michael J Malaska, Bernd Abel, Frank Postberg