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The non-destructive separation of diverse astrobiologically relevant organic molecules by customizable capillary zone electrophoresis and monolithic capillary electrochromatography

  • Kosuke Fujishima (a1) (a2), Szymon Dziomba (a3) (a4), Hajime Yano (a5), Seydina I. Kebe (a3), Mohamed Guerrouache (a3), Benjamin Carbonnier (a3) and Lynn J. Rothschild (a6)...

Abstract

The in situ detection of organic molecules in space is key to understanding the variety and the distribution of the building blocks of life, and possibly the detection of extraterrestrial life itself. Gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) has been the most sensitive analytical strategy for organic analyses in flight, and was used on missions from NASA's Viking, Phoenix, Curiosity missions to ESA's Rosetta space probe. While pyrolysis GC-MS revealed the first organics on Mars, this step alters or degrades certain fragile molecules that are excellent biosignatures including polypeptides, oligonucleotides and polysaccharides, rendering the intact precursors undetectable. We have identified a solution tailored to the detection of biopolymers and other biomarkers by the use of liquid-based capillary electrophoresis and electrochromatography. In this study, we show that a capillary electrochromatography approach using monolithic stationary phases with tailor-made surface chemistry can separate and identify various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nucleobases and aromatic acids that could be formed under astrophysically relevant conditions. In order to simulate flyby organic sample capture, we conducted hypervelocity impact experiments which consisted of accelerating peptide-soaked montmorillonite particles to a speed of 5.6 km s−1, and capturing them in an amorphous silica aerogel of 10 mg cm−3 bulk density. Bulk peptide extraction from aerogel followed by capillary zone electrophoresis led to the detection of only two stereoisomeric peptide peaks. The recovery rates of each step of the extraction procedure after the hypervelocity impact suggest that major peptide loss occurred during the impact. Our study provides initial exploration of feasibility of this approach for capturing intact peptides, and subsequently detecting candidate biomolecules during flight missions that would be missed by GC-MS alone. As the monolith-based electrochromatography technology could be customized to detect specific classes of compounds as well as miniaturized, these results demonstrate the potential of the instrumentation for future astrobiology-related spaceflight missions.

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Corresponding author

Author for correspondence: Lynn J. Rothschild, E-mail: lynn.j.rothschild@nasa.gov and Benjamin Carbonnier, E-mail: carbonnier@icmpe.cnrs.fr

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Contributed equally.

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References

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