New molecule tool could help find alien life

Scientists have found a new system capable of identifying complex molecular signatures that could help find alien life in the universe.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow said that the new tool could even lead to the creation of new forms of life in the laboratory.

The new method, called Assembly Theory, can quantify how assembled or complex a molecule is in the laboratory using techniques like mass spectrometry.

The more complex the object, the more unlikely that it could arise by chance, and the more likely it was made by the process of evolution.

The Glasgow team, led by Professor Lee Cronin, developed Assembly Theory in partnership with collaborators at NASA and Arizona State University.

Together, they have shown that the system works with samples from all over the earth and extra-terrestrial samples.

The system uses mass spectrometry to break the molecule into bits and counts the number of unique parts. The larger the number of unique parts, the larger the assembly number and the team have been able to show that life on earth can only make molecules with high assembly numbers.

A big challenge in the search for extraterrestrial life is been identifying which chemical signatures are unique to life, leading to several ultimately unproven claims of the discovery of alien life.

The metabolic experiments of NASA’s Viking Martian lander, for example, only detected simple molecules whose existence could be explained by natural non-living processes in addition to living processes.

In a new paper published by journal Nature Communications, the team describes a universal approach to life detection.

“Our system is the first falsifiable hypothesis for life detection,” said professor Cronin, regium professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow. “It’s based on the idea that only living systems can produce complex molecules that could not form randomly in any abundance. This allows us to sidestep the problem of defining life – instead we focus on the complexity of the chemistry.”

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