MBL | Biological Discovery in Woods Hole Contact UsDirectionsText SizeSmallMediumLarge

Resources for Reporters:

MBL Publications:

Join the Conversation:
Facebook Twitter Youtube Wordpress

Nobel Laureates

press releases

For further MBL News and Media Information, contact the MBL Communications Office at (508) 289-7423 or e-mail us at comm@mbl.edu.

June 24, 2003
Looking for Life on Mars

The blood of the primitive horseshoe crab may help NASA in the search for life on other planets

MarsWoods Hole, MA - A miniaturized machine designed to test for microbial contamination on Earth is now being tested at several NASA facilities to determine whether it can also detect microbes on spacecraft, and perhaps even on other planets.  Norman Wainwright, a Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA, recently took the device, developed by Charles River Laboratories' Endosafe Division, on a zero-gravity flight to assess whether it also functions in space.  Preliminary data indicate that the device works well, even under these unusual conditions.

Charles River calls the device the Endosafe®- PTS (Portable Test System). It is sleek and no bigger than a large calculator.  A combination of microfluidics and sophisticated electronics has resulted in a very compact machine that can perform quantitative tests in the field.  The collaboration with Charles River Laboratories employs the Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) test, developed at the MBL during the 1960s and 1970s, in a very new format.

Horseshoe CrabLAL is derived from the blood of the horseshoe crab and is part of the animal's primitive immune system. It is comprised of a cascade of enzymes that causes the blood of the horseshoe crab to clot when it encounters potentially harmful gram-negative bacteria.  Since its discovery at the MBL, LAL has become a multi-million dollar industry for testing pharmaceuticals and surgical instruments for deadly toxins. The test relies on drawing blood from the crab and processing the blood cells to extract the LAL enzymes. Horseshoe crabs are returned to the wild after their blood is taken.

NASA is interested in employing this technology to analyze samples from the surface of spacecraft before launch to verify that they are free of microbes and other organic material. The rigorous cleaning process is required by the Planetary Protection Act, which was established by NASA to ensure spacecraft don't contaminate pristine environments on other planets with microbes from Earth, preserving the area for future studies of life in the universe

The new LAL test, used alongside traditional methods, involves swabbing the surface of the spacecraft, extracting the swab and putting a sample into the PTS.  Results are available in about 15 minutes-much faster than NASA's current method, which involves waiting three days while samples are cultured in Petri dishes. In addition to its use in Planetary Protection, other NASA collaborators are also exploring whether the PTS could be sent into space to test the soils of other planets like Mars for microbes.  If zero-gravity and other tests go well, the PTS could be part of a Mars mission as early as 2007.  "If there are microbes on other planets, will they be similar to those on earth?" asks Dr. Wainwright.  "And how will they react to the horseshoe crab enzymes?"

Dr. Wainwright has been conducting cutting-edge research into the unique characteristics of horseshoe crab blood for over a decade. "The horseshoe crab is a very primitive species, and fossil records show it has evolved little over the past 150 million years," Dr. Wainwright said. "We think that one of the reasons the horseshoe crab has survived for so long is its well-developed immune system.  It is fascinating that this primitive marine organism could play a role in studying even more primitive microbial life in our solar system."

For more information on the horseshoe crab, please click here.

The Marine Biological Laboratory is an independent scientific institution, founded in 1888, that undertakes the highest level of creative research and education in biology, including the biomedical and environmental sciences.