Machine Design

Lab-on-a-chip may help detect life on Mars

Researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., are using lab-on-a-chip technology to detect bacteria and life forms on Earth and other planets.

The same technology will help protect astronauts by monitoring crew health and detecting microbes and contaminants in spacecraft.

A lab-on-a-chip lets chemical and biological

processes take place on a small glass plate with fluid channels, or microfluidic capillaries. The chips are made using the same microfabrication techniques used to print circuits on computer chips. Chemicals and fluid samples can be mixed, diluted, separated, and controlled using channels or electrical circuits embedded on the chip.

NASA researchers are developing complex, portable microarray diagnostic chips to test for all genes and DNA responsible for determining the traits of a particular organism, detect specific types of organisms, or use biosensorlike probes such as antibodies to detect molecules of interest. “The microarray-chip system developed to go to Mars will be lightweight, portable, and capable of detecting organic molecules,” says Dr. Lisa Monaco, project scientist for the Labona-Chip Applications Development program. Because the chips are small, a large number can sit on a Mars rover to search for life or go on long-duration human exploration missions for monitoring microbes inside lunar or Martian habitats.

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