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Narrowing our search for life on Mars

news editor12 September 2013

Life on Mars? (Image by MelissaBowersock on Flickr.)

Life on Mars? (Image by
MelissaBowersock
on Flickr.)

pencil-iconWritten by Cassy Fiford, a recent graduate from UCL and a science communication intern at the European Planetary Science Congress.

What might Martian life look like? Not like little green men, according to Dr Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow who was talking at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) currently being held at UCL. Dr Dartnell is a former member of the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck.

Even the gloomy Monday morning rain did not dampen the spirits of the many scientists who joined the congress at UCL, each counting down until the 2016 launch of ExoMars, a European space mission with the purpose of finding life on Mars. UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory is playing a leading role in the development of ExoMars, including the design of the main camera, which will land with the second ExoMars probe in 2019.

Contrary to the classic Martian stereotype of little green men, Dr Dartnell and his team have focused on microscopic signs of life. They found that certain minuscule biomarkers, chemical ‘fingerprints’ of life, could be able to withstand the hostile conditions of Mars and may be indicative of life on our neighbouring planet. The survival of these man-made biomarkers in a Mars-like environment means the real thing might have survived on Mars and could be detected by the ExoMars programme.

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Genomics and Medicine, with Aroon Hingorani

James M Heather19 March 2013

DNA double helix (courtesy of the National Human
Genome Research Institute via
Wikimedia Commons)

In recognition of February’s status as National Heart Month, Professor Aroon Hingorani recently took to the stage for a Lunch Hour Lecture about the opportunities and challenges associated with using genomics to improve personal and public health.

Genomics is the study of genomes – all of the DNA contained in the cell of an organism.

The ability to read, or ‘sequence’, DNA has been improving exponentially over the last few decades and we can sequence far more DNA than ever before, in less time and at a lower cost.

One of the most significant recent developments in this field was the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. This ambitious undertaking provided scientists everywhere with a blueprint of what our genomes look like.

By comparing DNA test results to this template researchers can identify the differences that might cause disease.

However, things are rarely that simple in medicine.

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