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Astrobiology. 2017 Aug;17(8):747-760. doi: 10.1089/ast.2016.1535. Epub 2017 Jul 13.

Nucleic Acid Extraction from Synthetic Mars Analog Soils for in situ Life Detection.

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1 Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Cambridge, Massachusetts.
2 Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital , Boston, Massachusetts.
3 Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School , Boston, Massachusetts.


Biological informational polymers such as nucleic acids have the potential to provide unambiguous evidence of life beyond Earth. To this end, we are developing an automated in situ life-detection instrument that integrates nucleic acid extraction and nanopore sequencing: the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG) instrument. Our goal is to isolate and determine the sequence of nucleic acids from extant or preserved life on Mars, if, for example, there is common ancestry to life on Mars and Earth. As is true of metagenomic analysis of terrestrial environmental samples, the SETG instrument must isolate nucleic acids from crude samples and then determine the DNA sequence of the unknown nucleic acids. Our initial DNA extraction experiments resulted in low to undetectable amounts of DNA due to soil chemistry-dependent soil-DNA interactions, namely adsorption to mineral surfaces, binding to divalent/trivalent cations, destruction by iron redox cycling, and acidic conditions. Subsequently, we developed soil-specific extraction protocols that increase DNA yields through a combination of desalting, utilization of competitive binders, and promotion of anaerobic conditions. Our results suggest that a combination of desalting and utilizing competitive binders may establish a "universal" nucleic acid extraction protocol suitable for analyzing samples from diverse soils on Mars. Key Words: Life-detection instruments-Nucleic acids-Mars-Panspermia. Astrobiology 17, 747-760.

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