Maggiori, C., Stromberg, J., Blanco, Y., Goordial, J., Cloutis, E., García Villadangos, M., Parro, V., Whyte, L. (2020). The Limits, Capabilities, and Potential for Life Detection with MinION Sequencing in a Paleochannel Mars Analog. Astrobiology 20, 3, 375-393 DOI: 10.1089/ast.2018.1964
No instrument capable of direct life detection has been included on a mission payload to Mars since NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s. This prevents us from discovering whether life is or ever was present on Mars. DNA is an ideal target biosignature since it is unambiguous, nonspecific, and readily detectable with nanopore sequencing. Here, we present a proof-of-concept utilization of the Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) MinION sequencer for direct life detection and show how it can complement results from established space mission instruments. We used nanopore sequencing data from the MinION to detect and characterize the microbial life in a set of paleochannels near Hanksville, UT, with supporting data from X-ray diffraction, reflectance spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and Life Detector Chip (LDChip) microarray immunoassay analyses. These paleochannels are analogs to martian sinuous ridges. The MinION-generated metagenomes reveal a rich microbial community dominated by bacteria and containing radioresistant, psychrophilic, and halophilic taxa. With spectral data and LDChip immunoassays, these metagenomes were linked to the surrounding Mars analog environment and potential metabolisms (e.g., methane production and perchlorate reduction). This shows a high degree of synergy between these techniques for detecting and characterizing biosignatures. We also resolved a prospective lower limit of similar to 0.001 ng of DNA required for successful sequencing. This work represents the first determination of the MinION’s DNA detection limits beyond ONT recommendations and the first whole metagenome analysis of a sinuous ridge analog.