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article imageWe could find aliens through their vibrations

By Stephen Morgan     Dec 30, 2014 in Science
Scientists in Europe have succeeded in identifying life through the sensitive vibrations it gives out. Their new instrument is capable of sensing the tiniest motions in living cells and could be used as a new way to detect life on other planets.
Until now the search for alien life has centred on the discovery of complex chemical evidence, but the Mail Online reports that researchers believe they have now discovered "a universal signature of life," which takes the form of vibrations given out by all living things.
According to the website Nano Werk, the researchers have created a motion detector which senses movement using a nano-sized cantilever. A cantilever is basically a beam that is fixed only at one end, while a load is placed on the other. The new device is amazingly small and sensitive and can carry about 500 bacteria. It is just a few microns in length, (a micron equals 1000 nanometres) which is about as thick as a red blood cell.
As it is based on existing technology, it is very easy and cheap to make. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said it costs about $10,000 to make, needs very little battery power and would fit in a 20 by 20 cm (8 inch) box.
Motion detector which could identify alien life
Motion detector which could identify alien life
PNAS
Ars Technica reports that the scientists attached cells from different life forms to the device. Its sensors then found that all forms of life make tiny vibrating motions and that, in effect, life has its own distinctive "hum." The researchers were able to record this in animal, human and plant cells, as well as in more rudimentary life forms such as bacteria, yeast and cancer cells.
Nano Werk explains how the device works:
"A bacterium attaches to the cantilever. If the bacterium is alive, it will inevitably move in some way, e.g. move its flagellum or simply carry out normal biological functions. That motion also moves the much smaller and sensitive cantilever and it is captured by the readout laser as series of vibrations. The signal is taken as a sign of life."
The European researchers successfully duplicated their method outside the laboratory by using soil samples from nearby fields and the Sorge river. In all the cases, they accurately identified and isolated vibration signatures from living cells. When they used poisons to kill off the live sources, the vibrating signals ended.
The method could also be used in medicine, for example, by covering cancer cells with various drug compounds. If the drugs worked, then the dwindling or death of the cells could easily be identified once the motion signals declined or stopped.
Giovanni Dietler, who led the study with Sandor Kasas and Giovanni Longo from the EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne,) said,
"The system has the benefit of being completely chemistry-free. That means that it can be used anywhere - in drug testing or even in the search for extraterrestrial life."
The scientists hope that the devise could be used in future space probes. What makes it even more exciting is that, because it doesn't rely on chemistry, it could detect life forms which don't depend on the same organic compounds as life on Earth does. There may be life forms out there, which have evolved in chemical conditions and extreme environments which would kill off life as we know it. The sensor would detect their existence from their vibrations and not the chemical conditions in which they exist.
Ars Technica says, "There are definitely some advantages of this approach. The biggest is that it doesn't depend on assumptions about our chemistry—we don't need to know whether alien life uses things like DNA and sugars in order to determine whether it's present."
Potentially, it might lead to the discovery of life forms in otherwise inhospitable environments made up of methane, CO2 or in gaseous planets and extremes of heat and cold.
The Mail Online quotes Professor Giovanni Longo as saying, "the motion detector allows studying life from a new perspective: life is movement."
"This means that the nanomotion detector can detect any small movement of living systems and deliver a complementary point of view in the search for life."
Ariel Anbar, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University, described the study as "refreshing" and a "fundamentally new idea."
"Motion-detection on such a scale has never been attempted before as an extraterrestrial life detection approach," he said. "If it is as technologically simple to implement as the authors claim, then it could be worth integrating into future mission concepts."
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