Status: 26/09/2023, 12:58 p.m.
By: Tanja Banner
A research team is developing an artificial intelligence that can recognize biotic matter. An important area of application could be Mars.
Washington D.C. – Is there or was there life on Mars? The question remains unanswered to this day, even though a researcher recently published a sensational theory about it. The criticism of many researchers is that none of the Mars rovers has instruments on board that could actually detect life. But in the future, artificial intelligence (AI) could perhaps help with this question.
A research team at the Carnegie Science Earth and Planets Laboratory in Washington D.C. has developed an analysis system that can distinguish between "biotic" and "abiotic" samples with an accuracy of about 90 percent, according to the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Life on Mars: Artificial intelligence could help
"This routine analysis method has the potential to revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and deepen our understanding of both the origin and chemistry of the earliest life on Earth," explains Robert Hazen, one of the study's authors, in a statement. "It opens the way for the use of smart sensors on robotic spacecraft, landers and rovers to look for signs of life before the samples return to Earth."
The new method could be used on Earth, but also on Mars, for example. It even seems possible that the research group will be able to apply the analysis method to data that the Mars rover "Curiosity" of the US space agency Nasa has already collected with the instrument "SAM" (Sample Analysis at Mars).
The search for extraterrestrial life remains one of the most exciting endeavors in modern science.
Jim Cleaves, lead author of the study
"We need to adapt our method to the 'SAM' protocols, but it is possible that we already have data that will allow us to determine whether there are molecules from an organic Martian biosphere on Mars," emphasizes the lead author of the study, Jim Cleaves. He is convinced: "The search for extraterrestrial life remains one of the most exciting undertakings in modern science."
Artificial intelligence can distinguish fresh biological samples from fossils
The newly developed method classifies samples based on machine learning – i.e. artificial intelligence is used. This was able to distinguish the samples tested so far not only into "biotic" and "abiotic" – but even more, as Hazen reports: "What really amazed us was that we had trained our machine learning model to predict only two sample types – 'biotic' or 'abiotic' – but the method discovered three different populations: 'abiotic', 'living biotic' and 'fossil biotic'."
In the study, artificial intelligence was able to distinguish fresh biological samples – for example, a leaf that has just been picked or freshly harvested vegetables – from something that has been dead for a long time. The research team now hopes that AI will also be able to distinguish other features such as photosynthetic life or cells with a nucleus.
A rover could discover life on Mars thanks to artificial intelligence. (Symbolic image) © imago images/designprojects
New method should detect extraterrestrial biochemistry
"We started from the idea that the chemistry of life is fundamentally different from that of the inanimate world; that there are 'chemical rules of life' that influence the diversity and distribution of biomolecules," explains Hazen, making it clear: "The method should be able to detect extraterrestrial biochemies as well as terrestrial life. That's a big deal."
It is relatively easy to recognize the molecular biomarkers of terrestrial life, but it cannot be assumed that extraterrestrial life uses DNA and amino acids. "Our method looks for patterns in molecular distribution that result from life's need for 'functional' molecules," explains the researcher and continues: "These results mean that we might be able to find a life form from another planet, another biosphere, even if it differs from life, that we know on Earth."
The method should be able to detect extraterrestrial biochemies as well as terrestrial life. That's a big deal.
Robert Hazen, author of the study
New technology could be used in spacecraft
"We urgently need biosignatures for life that don't depend on the search for a specific type of biomolecule that may apply to all life on Earth, but not to all life outside the Earth," says Karen Lloyd of the University of Tennessee.
Daniel Gregory of the University of Toronto comments: "This is an important potential tool for identifying life on other planets as well as in distant periods of Earth's past. Importantly, the technology can already be used in spacecraft that can travel to different parts of the solar system in search of life outside Earth." (tab)