Tuesday November 13, 2018
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NASA developing chemical laptop for easier alien life detection

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source: www.engadget.com
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Washington: NASA is developing a makeshift miniature laboratory—‘a chemical laptop’—which can detect fatty acids and amino acids in other worlds, and thus would be more easily able to detect evidence of any living form outside earth.

The device, which basically analyses different samples to find materials associated with life, is being worked upon in Pasadena, California’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Jessica Creamer, based at JPL as a NASA postdoctoral fellow, said to a news agency, “If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids.”

Fatty acids are the main constituents of a cell membrane while amino acids form proteins. Both these acids are indispensable for life. However, at times non-living sources also hold them.

Researchers hope to send this device, which is much like a ‘tricorder’ from Star Trek, to other planetary bodies such as Mars or Europa.

The ‘chemical laptop’ is more or less the size of an ordinary computing laptop, but has a larger thickness to accommodate the components for chemical analysis. NASA said that the mechanism would require the device to ingest a sample in order to analyse it. In this way, it is different from a tricorder.

A JPL technologist, Fernanda Mora, who is developing the instrument with the project’s principal investigator, Peter Willis, said: “Our device is a chemical analyser that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions.”

“As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids,” added Mora.

There are two types of amino acids—left-handed and right-handed—which, though containing the same components, are mirror images of each other.

Theories put forward by scientists say that Earth life evolved in a manner that there are only left-handed amino acids on the planet. But life on other worlds might very well have evolved in a different manner, where right-handed amino acids could also be present.

“If a test found a 50-50 mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, we could conclude that the sample was probably not of biological origin,” said Creamer.

But, to find an excess of either left-handed or right-handed amino acids would be “a golden ticket”, Creamer added. “That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets.”

In case of fatty acids, it is the length of the carbon chain which would indicate to the scientists the type of organisms that are currently present or were present.

The device is battery-operated and perhaps its major drawback is that it requires a liquid sample to analyze, which would be rather difficult to obtain in planetary bodies such as Mars.

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NASA to Send Organ-on-Chips To Test Human Tissue Health in Space

Called a micro-physiological system, a tissue chip needs three main properties

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NASA, tissue
NASA to send tissue chips to space to test human health, genetic changes. Flcikr

NASA is planning to send small devices containing human cells in a 3D matrix — known as tissue chips or organs-on-chips — to the International Space Station (ISS) to test how they respond to stress, drugs and genetic changes.

Made of flexible plastic, tissue chips have ports and channels to provide nutrients and oxygen to the cells inside them.

The “Tissue Chips in Space” initiative seeks to better understand the role of microgravity on human health and disease and to translate that understanding to improved human health on Earth, NASA said.

“Spaceflight causes many significant changes in the human body,” said Liz Warren, Associate Program Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in the US.

Kepler, NASA, tissue
This illustration made available by NASA shows the Kepler Space Telescope. As of October 2018, the planet-hunting spacecraft has been in space for nearly a decade. VOA

“We expect tissue chips in space to behave much like an astronaut’s body, experiencing the same kind of rapid change,” Warren said.

The US space agency is planning the investigations in collaboration with CASIS and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

Many of the changes in the human body caused by microgravity resemble the onset and progression of diseases associated with ageing on Earth, such as bone and muscle loss. But the space-related changes occur much faster.

That means scientists may be able to use tissue chips in space to model changes that might take months or years to happen on Earth.

Parkinson's Disease, Kepler, NASA, tissue
A researcher takes a tissue sample from a human brain at the Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s UK Tissue Bank, VOA

This first phase of Tissue Chips in Space includes five investigations. An investigation of immune system ageing is planned for launch on the SpaceX CRS-16 flight, scheduled for this year.

The other four, scheduled to launch on SpaceX CRS-17 or subsequent flights, include lung host defense, the blood-brain barrier, musculoskeletal disease and kidney function.

In addition, four more projects are scheduled for launch in summer 2020, including two on engineered heart tissue to understand cardiovascular health, one on muscle wasting and another on gut inflammation.

Kepler, NASA, tissue
“Detecting life in an agnostic fashion means not using characteristics particular to Earth life,” said Heather Graham at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Pixabay

Also called a micro-physiological system, a tissue chip needs three main properties, according to Lucie Low, scientific programme manager at National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in the US.

Also Read: NASA’s Ralph Will Explore Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids in 2021

“It has to be 3D, because humans are 3D,” she explained.

“It must have multiple, different types of cells, because an organ is made up of all kinds of tissue types. And it must have microfluidic channels, because every single tissue in your body has vasculature to bring in blood and nutrients and to take away detritus,” she added. (IANS)