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Berkeley Sequencing Pioneer Awarded $2.4M to Develop Test for Life on Mars

NEW YORK, April 13 (GenomeWeb News) - NASA has awarded a University of California, Berkeley, chemist nearly $2.4 million to apply technologies originally developed for genome sequencing to detect life on Mars.

Richard Mathies, the co-developer of the capillary array electrophoresis separators used in Amersham Biosciences' DNA sequencers, is working with colleagues from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography to build a Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) -- an instrument based on the same capillary electrophoresis arrays and fluorescent dye labels used in genome sequencing that will detect amino acids on the planet.

The MOA will measure the chirality of amino acids on Mars to determine whether there is a preference for left-handed or right-handed protein building blocks. "We feel that measuring homochirality  -- a prevalence of one type of handedness over another -- would be absolute proof of life," said Mathies in a statement.

The instrument is expected to fly aboard NASA's robotic Mars Science Laboratory mission and/or the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, both scheduled for launch in 2009.

The MOA is one of several instruments under development with NASA funding to look for the presence of organic molecules on Mars, and the only one that detects amino acid chirality, according to Mathies. Final proposals for the 2009 mission are due in mid-July.

Details of the MOA project are available here.

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