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Astrobiology. 2003 Fall;3(3):489-504.

Terahertz circular dichroism spectroscopy: a potential approach to the in situ detection of life's metabolic and genetic machinery.

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Department of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara 93106, USA.


We propose a terahertz (far-infrared) circular dichroism-based life-detection technology that may provide a universal and unequivocal spectroscopic signature of living systems regardless of their genesis. We argue that, irrespective of the specifics of their chemistry, all life forms will employ well-structured, chiral, stereochemically pure macromolecules (>500 atoms) as the catalysts with which they perform their metabolic and replicative functions. We also argue that nearly all such macromolecules will absorb strongly at terahertz frequencies and exhibit significant circular dichroism, and that this circular dichroism unambiguously distinguishes biological from abiological materials. Lastly, we describe several approaches to the fabrication of a terahertz circular dichroism spectrometer and provide preliminary experimental indications of their feasibility. Because terahertz circular dichroism signals arise from the molecular machinery necessary to carry out life's metabolic and genetic processes, this life-detection method differs fundamentally from more well-established approaches based on the detection of isotopic fractionation, "signature" carbon compounds, disequilibria, or other by-products of metabolism. Moreover, terahertz circular dichroism spectroscopy detects this machinery in a manner that makes few, if any, assumptions as to its chemical nature or the processes that it performs.

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