Portland, Ore. - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is harnessing lab-on-chip technology to detect life on other planets and monitor microbes inside spacecraft. Employing recent advances in microfluidic and sensor technology, NASA scientists are engineering an array of labs-on-chip. Each is specialized to detect certain types of life.
"Lab-on-a-chip technology is maturing rapidly here on Earth, but to use it in spacecraft or on other planets we need to develop a set of unique chips with miniaturized controllers and analysis units so that scientists can conduct many different chemical and biological assays with each lab-on-a-chip," said Lisa Monaco, the project scientist for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program at NASA.
For use in space, the chips need to be hardened against cosmic rays and other high-velocity energy sources that are filtered out by the atmosphere. They must be freestanding units, independent of the need for consumables, such as chemical reagents, that need to be renewed, or of even the external water sources that clean out microfluidic channels between assays on earthbound microfluidic prototype chips.
"Lab-on-a-chip technology can be used to detect bacteria and life-forms on Earth and other planets as well as for protecting astronauts by monitoring crew health and detecting microbes and contaminants in spacecraft," said Helen Cole, project manager for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program.
On Earth, early implementations of lab-on-chip technologies include home pregnancy tests as well as doctors' in-office tests for strep throat. These one-shot labs-on-a-chip mix, concentrate and control a specialized test that yields quick results in an inexpensive disposable device. But for use in space, almost everything about their design has to changed.
Above the Earth, labs-on-chip must be reusable and retargetable for conducting a range of tests. For discovering life elsewhere, the testing regime needs to encompass processes and sensors that may not even be useful on Earth.
To cover the spectrum of possibilities, the NASA scientists plan to develop portable microarray diagnostic chips that can perform multiple tests to detect every gene and DNA strand known to be responsible for determining the presence of life processes. They are also surveying the available antibody- and protein-based detectors that can pinpoint the metabolic molecules that life-forms exhibit.
Similarly, astrobiologists are studying life-forms that exist in harsh environments on Earth to develop tests for use in similar environments on other planets.
According to Monaco, future Mars rovers could carry many labs-on-chip.
"At remote places on Earth, and on Mars and other places in the solar system, we need customized microarray chips to find and characterize life," said Andrew Steele, a scientist who is supporting the NASA work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Steele is the principal investigator for the institution's Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration project, which plans to put its chips on Mars during the 2013 mission. He is working with NASA researchers to develop labs-on-chip for space and planetary exploration.