A research group in the USA says it has found the “holy grail of astrobiology”. This is a “simple and reliable test” that, thanks to AI technology, can indicate with a 90 percent success rate whether samples have a biological or non-biological origin. The technology could revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and also help in researching the origins of life on Earth, says the research leader. Those involved are convinced that they have found an indication of fundamental differences between biochemical and abiotic chemicals that the AI has recognized.
AI delivers surprise
Even before the development of AI analysis, it was assumed that the chemistry of living things was fundamentally different from that of the non-living world, explains Robert Hazen from the Carnegie Institution for Science, who led the work. The algorithm was then trained to distinguish biotic from abiotic samples and experienced a surprise. The method developed in this way is able to distinguish between three different species. According to the AI, the samples with non-biological origins are contrasted with those that come from living organisms and those that go back to fossil organisms. Examples of the former include teeth, mussel shells, bones and hair, while the latter mean coal, oil and amber.
For the analysis method now presented, the samples must be examined using so-called gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry. This is a method for quantifying organic compounds. One should imagine the procedure as something like differentiating coins depending on their monetary value, metal type, year of minting, weight or size, explains co-author Anirudh Prabhu. If you combine these attributes, you can achieve finer separations. When examining the samples to search for traces of life, hundreds of attributes are now involved and only AI algorithms are able to find patterns in them.
The team is convinced that they have confirmed the basic assumption of a fundamental difference between biochemistry and abiotic chemistry, but we probably don’t know what exactly that is. This is demonstrated by the surprising finding that the AI can apparently distinguish between three different origins. It will demonstrate its practical suitability, among other things, by analyzing 3.5-billion-year-old sediments from Australia that could be traced back to microbes. The team would also like to soon use the method to evaluate materials that NASA rovers have examined on Mars. But they are now presenting them in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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