As part of the grant, Waggoner's team will develop new fluorescent dyes that bind to the common building blocks of life DNA, lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. The grant also provides funds to develop an optical system that can spray these fluorescent dyes on a region of soil to detect life forms in the environment. This system is expected to be completed within several years. The Waggoner team is collaborating with researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute; the final life detection system should be versatile enough to couple with different types of rovers used in planetary expeditions.
The scope of the grant includes developing dyes and testing their feasibility in local environments, as well as areas hostile to life, such as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where relatively few pockets of life persist. Given its Mars-like terrain, the Atacama is a favorite laboratory testing ground for astrobiologists.
"It's tremendously exciting to extend the work of our team and contribute to interplanetary searches for life," says Waggoner, who directs the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center (MBIC) at the Mellon College of Science. "We believe that these methods will provide the most sensitive means of detecting life with a remote device."
The technology has potential beyond Mars, according to Shmuel Weinstein, project manager. "The scientific impact of our work begins on earth, with the ability to detect very low concentrations of living and dead organisms." Once developed, this system could work in circumstances such as biohazardous settings or extreme environments, where an automated, unmanned device would be ideal.